What is dementia?
Dementia is not a single disease. It is a group of symptoms associated with thinking.
NICE put the symptoms of dementia into three groups:
- Cognitive dysfunction (thinking problems)
- Psychiatric and behavioural problems
- Difficulties with activities of daily living such as driving, shopping, eating, and dressing.
In everyday life, these are the features of dementia that you’re most likely to notice:
- memory loss
- reduced thinking speed
- reduced mental agility
- difficulties with language
- difficulties with understanding
- poorer judgement
It mainly affects older people.
How common is dementia?
In 2014 about 850,000 people had dementia in the UK. The Alzheimer’s Society reckon this figure will double by 2051.
It is more common in older people. It affects 1 in 100 people in their 60s rising to 1 in 6 people in their 80s. But it can affect younger people too - 1 in 1400 people aged 40-64 have dementia.
About 2/3 of people with dementia are women but this is, of course, partly because women live longer. At younger ages, dementia is more prevalent in men - 1.58% of men aged 60-64 have dementia compared to 0.47% of women.
Dementia is a disease that many of us are afraid of and would rather not think about. But as we live longer, we’re going to have to accept it, become more aware of it and try to break down the stigma attached to it. It was estimated that about 1 in 3 people born in 2015 would one day develop dementia.
So is dementia part of ageing?
Dementia is related to the death of brain cells and becomes more common as we age. But dementia is not a normal part of ageing. It may be linked to:
- lack of blood/oxygen in parts of the brain
- head injury
- fluid build-up (hydrocephelus)
- neurological (brain) diseases
- vitamin deficiency
- heavy long-term alcohol intake
What causes dementia?
Alzheimer’s Disease is the cause of nearly two in three cases of dementia (62%). Proteins called plaques form blockages which make it more difficult for the chemicals that enable brain cells to communicate to pass around. This leads to the loss of cells and the brain shrinks.
Other causes of dementia include:
- vascular dementia (1 in 6 cases - 17%) - caused when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted by a stroke or series of strokes
- mixed dementia (1 in 10 cases) - a combination of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia
- rarer causes such as dementia with Lewy bodies make up the final 10% of cases
How do you spot dementia?
The Alzheimer’s Association reckon that fewer than half of the people with dementia have a medical diagnosis. It’s not always easy to spot.
All sorts of things can cause the sort of symptoms mentioned above including tiredness, drink, depression and drugs (including some prescription drugs). But regularly experiencing the following could be signs:
- difficulty recalling recent events but no problem remembering far older ones
- finding it hard to follow the thread of a conversation or TV programme
- forgetting the names of friends or everyday objects
- feeling confused or lost even in a familiar environment
- others commenting on your forgetfulness
- finding yourself getting angry or anxious because of your forgetfulness
- repeating yourself
- problems reasoning and making logical decisions
What should I do if I think I or someone I know might have dementia?
It’s worth going to see your GP if you’re concerned. NICE advises GPs to consider referring people with signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to a memory assessment service. MCI is defined as thinking less effectively than might be expected for your age even if it does ‘not interfere notably with activities of daily living’. Having MCI does not mean you will get dementia - in fact, only ten percent of this group will go on to develop dementia.
Some forms of dementia can be turned around - for example, if you have vitamin or hormonal deficiency or have a tumour or fluid-build up which can be treated with surgery.
Most other forms can be treated to some extent to ease the symptoms. These are most effective early on in the disease so it makes sense to get a diagnosis as soon as possible.
Also if your symptoms are not caused by dementia but by something else such as depression your GP can treat that too.
What can I do to reduce my risk of dementia?
It’s all the usual stuff really.
- Eat a balanced diet - low in fat, salt and sugar, high in fruit, veg and fibre.
- Exercise. (There is some evidence to suggest that dementia is lower in people who remain as mentally and physically active as possible throughout their lives.)
- Don’t smoke - it can cause mini clots in the brain which leads to a vascular dementia
- Don’t drink too much.
- Watch your blood pressure. (Being overweight will up your blood pressure.)
- Keep up with your friends. (There is evidence that people with a more limited social network are at greater risk of dementia.)
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Date of last review 18/05/20
Date of next review 18/05/23
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