Dementia currently affects around 850,000 people in the UK, with a staggering one in 14 people over the age of 65 living with the condition. To coincide with Dementia Awareness Week, running from 14-20 May, get to know the symptoms and causes of the health condition, along with the treatments and how it can possibly be prevented.
What is dementia?
Dementia describes symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, language or problem-solving. The changes can be small to start with but become severe enough to affect daily life. It can also lead to changes in the mood or behaviour of the person affected.
What causes dementia?
There are a number of diseases that result in dementia, with the most common cause being Alzheimer's disease. This is where an abnormal protein surrounds brain cells and another protein damages their internal structure. Over time the chemical connections between brain cells are lost and cells begin to die.
Another common type of dementia is vascular dementia; this occurs when the oxygen supply to the brain is reduced because of narrowing or blockage of blood vessels, leading to brain cells becoming damaged or dying. The symptoms can occur suddenly, following a stroke, or develop over time after a series of small strokes.
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What are the symptoms of dementia?
The different types of dementia can affect people in different ways, especially in the early stages. However many of the problems will be cognitive, and a person with dementia will often have problems with some of the following:
- Day-to-day memory: Including difficulty remembering events that happened recently.
- Concentrating, planning or organising: This could include having difficulty making decisions, solving problems or carrying out tasks.
- Language: A person may have trouble following a conversation or finding the right word for what they want to say.
- Orientation: They may lose track of the day or date, or become confused about where they are.
- Visuospatial skills: This could include problems judging distances and seeing objects in three dimensions.
A person with dementia will also often have changes to their mood. They may become frustrated, irritable, easily upset or unusually sad. The symptoms will gradually get worse over time as dementia is progressive, however how quickly this happens varies from person to person.
How is dementia diagnosed?
There is no single test for dementia; a diagnosis is based on a combination of factors, including…
- Case history: The doctor will talk to the person and someone who knows them well about how their problems developed and how it is affecting their daily life.
- Physical examination and tests: Blood tests and other physical examinations will help doctors to rule out any other possible causes for the person's symptoms.
- Mental ability tests: Some tests may be carried out by a doctor or psychologist to assess a patient's memory and thinking.
- A scan of the brain: This can help to confirm a diagnosis and assess which type of dementia a patient has.
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What is the treatment for dementia?
There is currently no cure for dementia, however there is ongoing research into how to help symptoms or to slow down their progression. Non-drug treatments available include advice, support and therapies for dementia patients. Talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy and cognitive rehabilitation may help some patients, while people with dementia are also encouraged to stay as active as possible – both mentally and physically.
There are some medications available to dementia patients including memantine, a drug that may be offered in the moderate or severe stages of Alzheimer's disease to help with attention and daily living. Meanwhile people with vascular dementia are likely to be offered drugs to treat the underlying medical conditions that cause dementia, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or heart problems.
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How can dementia be prevented?
While there is no proven way of preventing dementia, following a healthy and active lifestyle could reduce the risk of developing the condition. This includes maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet, staying active and avoiding excessive alcohol and smoking, which can lead to narrowing of the arteries. It has also been suggested that staying mentally and socially active into later life may reduce a person's risk of dementia.
For more information on dementia visit alzheimers.org.uk. If you think that you or anyone you know may have dementia it is important to visit your GP and seek professional medical advice.