Dementia: things you DIDN’T know
Many people believe that dementia is a bit of forgetfulness, but in reality, it can be much worse. As we age, we tend to become more forgetful, and this can be normal. Your memory can become affected by stress, tiredness, or even certain illnesses and medication. It becomes a problem though if you are becoming increasingly forgetful, and it is starting to affect your daily life. If this is the case, particularly if you are over the age of 65, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your GP, where you can discuss the early signs of dementia.
Dementia is not a natural part of ageing and it needs to be addressed. It can have a huge impact on your life and can be particularly distressing for your loved ones, as it can affect the way in which you speak, think, feel and behave.
What is dementia?
Like we have said, dementia is not just becoming forgetful. It is a syndrome, which is associated with an ongoing decline in brain functioning. There are a number of different problems associated with the syndrome, which include; memory loss, thinking speed, mental sharpness and quickness, language, understanding, judgement, mood, movement and difficulties carrying out daily activities.
There is currently no cure and many different causes of dementia. A common confusion is a difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, but Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia – one of the most common. The other common type is vascular dementia.
Although we will look into the symptoms of dementia in a little more detail later, people with dementia can become apathetic, or uninterested in their usual activities, or might even have problems controlling their emotions. On top of this, they can find social situations incredibly challenging, which causes a loss in interest in socialising, and some aspects of their personality can then change.
Dementia affects a person’s mental abilities, so it is so important that they have a strong support network around them, as maintaining their independence can become a problem. They will require help from friends and relatives to help make their decisions for them.
The good news is, that although there is no cure at present, early diagnosis can slow the process down and help to maintain mental function. Not only that, but getting a diagnosis can help you to get the appropriate treatment and support, and they can continue to lead an active and fulfilled life.
Symptoms of dementia will worsen with time, and as time goes on, people will be able to do much less for themselves, and can even lose a lot of their ability to communicate, so they will need their strong support network around them.
Symptoms of dementia
Like we have already said, dementia is a collection of symptoms that result from damage to the brain, which is caused by a number of different diseases. The symptoms will vary, according to the part of the brain which has become affected.
Different types of dementia will affect people in different ways, but normally, there are some common early symptoms that are experienced by most people who are in the early stages of dementia. These include; memory loss; difficulty in concentrating; finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks, such as getting confused over the correct change when shopping; struggling to follow a conversation or to find the right word; being confused about a time and place and mood changes.
These symptoms are often very mild, to begin with, and could get worse very gradually. This stage is often called ‘mild cognitive impairment’, as the symptoms are not severe enough to be classified as dementia.
The symptoms might be so mild that you might not even notice them, and friends and family might not take them seriously for a while. In most cases though, these symptoms will remain the same and not worsen, but for others, this will then develop into dementia.
There are also some symptoms that are specific to certain types of dementia. Let’s look first at one of the most common; Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms of this include; memory problems, including regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces; asking questions repetitively; increasing difficulties with tasks and activities that require organisation and planning; becoming confused in unfamiliar environments; difficulty finding the right words; difficulty with numbers and handling money in shops; and becoming more withdrawn or anxious.
Another common cause of dementia is vascular dementia, and although the symptoms are similar in a lot of ways to Alzheimer’s disease, the memory loss might not be as apparent in the early stages. Symptoms of vascular dementia can develop very suddenly, and can get worse very quickly; however, they can develop gradually over a lot of months or even years. Symptoms of vascular dementia can include; stroke-like symptoms, which can include muscle weakness or temporary paralysis on one side of the body – if you experience this, you need to get urgent medical attention; movement problems, which can include difficulty in walking or a change in the way in which a person walks; thinking problems, which can include having difficulty with attention, planning and reasoning; and mood changes, which include depression and a tendency to become more emotional.
Getting help for dementia
If you or a loved one has experienced some of the above symptoms, or you are at all worried about your memory, it is worthwhile making a doctors appointment. Although it can be a scary diagnosis, getting a proper diagnosis will give you and your family the best chance for you to plan for your future.
When you go to your doctor, they will likely ask you about your symptoms, and other areas of your health, as well as giving you a physical examination. It is worth bringing someone with you who knows you will, as they can describe any symptoms or problems that they have noticed. If your memory is becoming affected as well, they can help you to remember what was said in the appointment.
Just remember as well, that a lot of memory problems can be caused by other factors as well, such as; depression and anxiety; delirium; thyroid problems; and side effects of medication. In order to rule these conditions out, your GP might want to organise some blood tests as well.
To test your memory, and ability to think clearly, you will also be asked to do a memory or cognitive test, and how you manage everyday tasks like personal care, including bathing and dressing; cooking and shopping and paying bills.
Before a GP gives a dementia diagnosis, they might want you to see a dementia specialist. This might be a psychiatrist who has experience in treating dementia; an elderly care physician; or a neurologist. If this is the case, try and make good use of your consultation with the specialist. Write down any questions that you want to ask, and ask if you can come back if you have any more questions at a later date. Try not to be too alarmed if the specialist wants to arrange some further tests as well, which can include brain scans, CT scans or an MRI scan, as well as a more detailed memory test. Most of the time, after this, a diagnosis can usually be made.
If you are diagnosed as having dementia, your doctor will sit down and talk it through with you, and answer any question that you might have. They should tell you; the type of dementia that you have, or any further tests that you will be given if they are unsure of what type you have; any details about how your symptoms might change, and the illness will develop; any appropriate treatments that you might be offered; care and support services that you might be offered, particularly ones in your area; support groups for your family; advocacy services; advice about whether you should be continuing to drive or carry on working; and finally, where you can find appropriate financial and legal advice. This should be given to you in writing as well, so you can refer back to it when needed.
Particularly if you are in the early stages of dementia, it is likely that your GP will want to see you from time to time to see how the illness is progressing. You might be prescribed more long-term medication which can help some symptoms; however, these are not effective for everyone. Your dementia should be continued to be assessed, and plans for the future, including a lasting power of attorney, should be put in place for when your symptoms worsen.
Things you might not know – dementia fact sheet
- Dementia is not a disease; instead, it is formed of a lot of different diseases, and it is simply an umbrella term. Alzheimer’s is the most common for of dementia, followed by vascular dementia.
- It is not simply a part of ageing and does not happen to everyone. Although it is more common in people over the age of 65, it is not a normal part of getting older. Your chances of getting dementia will increase with age though.
- It is much more than memory loss and can affect people in a huge number of ways. This can include changes in behaviour, confusion, disorientation, delusions, hallucinations, difficulty communicating, problems judging speeds and distances and cravings for particular food.
- You can live an independent and active life with dementia, thanks to supporting mechanisms and strategies to live well with the condition. These can include starting new hobbies or taking part in research.
- It has a bigger impact on women, thanks to more women living well into their 80’s, and the condition is becoming the leading cause of death in women in the UK.
- It is a global issue, affecting approximately 46.8 million people worldwide.
- It can affect everyone, regardless of your background, education, lifestyle or status.
- There are currently no treatments to stop the diseases that currently cause dementia. This means that the diseases will continue to get worse over time unless new treatments can be found.
- There is very little funding for research into dementia, and currently receives around three percent of the government’s medical research budget.