What is dementia?

Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of a large group of illnesses which cause a progressive decline in a person’s functioning. It is a broad term used to describe a loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and what would be considered normal emotional reactions.

Most people with dementia are older, but it is important to remember that most older people do not get dementia. It is not a normal part of ageing. Dementia can happen to anybody, but it is more common after the age of 65 years. People in their 40s and 50s can also have dementia.

There are many different forms of dementia and each has its own causes.

Early Signs

The early signs of dementia are very subtle, vague and may not be immediately obvious. Early symptoms also vary a great deal. Usually though, people first seem to notice that there is a problem with memory, particularly in remembering recent events.

There are several warning signs of dementia

Memory loss that affects day-to-day function
It is normal to occasionally forget appointments or a friend’s phone number and remember them later.  A person with dementia may forget things more often and not remember them at all.

Difficulty performing familiar tasks
People can get distracted from time to time and they may forget to serve part of a meal.  A person with dementia may have trouble with all steps involved in preparing a meal.

Confusion about time and place
It’s normal to forget the day of the week – for a moment.  But a person with dementia may have difficulty finding their way to a familiar place, or they can feel confused about where they are.

Problems with language
Everyone has trouble finding the right word sometimes, but a person with dementia may forget simple words or substitute inappropriate words, making sentences difficult to understand.

Problems with abstract thinking
Balancing a cheque-book can be difficult for anyone, but a person with dementia may have trouble knowing what the numbers mean.

Poor or decreased judgment
A person with dementia may have difficulty judging distance or direction when driving a car.

Problems misplacing things
Anyone can temporarily misplace a wallet or keys.  A person with dementia may put things in inappropriate places.

Changes in personality or behaviour
Everyone becomes sad or moody from time to time.  Someone with dementia can exhibit rapid mood swings for no apparent reason.  They can become confused, suspicious or withdrawn.

A loss of initiative
It’s normal to tire of some activities.  But dementia may cause a person to lose interest in previously enjoyed activities.

Other common symptoms include:

Personality change
Apathy and withdrawal
Loss of ability to do everyday tasks

Sometimes people fail to recognise that these symptoms indicate that something is wrong. They may mistakenly assume that such behaviour is a normal part of the ageing process.

Sometimes symptoms may develop gradually and go unnoticed for a long time and  sometimes people may refuse to act even when they know something is wrong.

Consulting a doctor at an early stage is critical. Only a medical practitioner can diagnose dementia. A complete medical and psychological assessment may identify a treatable condition and ensure that it is treated correctly, or confirm the presence of dementia. If a firm diagnosis has been made, it is helpful to find out about dementia and the support.
A correct diagnosis is important.

It is important to remember that many conditions have symptoms similar to dementia, so do not assume that someone has dementia just because some of the symptoms are present. Strokes, depression, alcoholism, infections, hormone disorders, nutritional deficiencies and brain tumours can all cause dementia-like symptoms. Many of these conditions can be treated.

What can be done to help?

At present there is no prevention or cure for most forms of dementia. However, some medications have been found to reduce some symptoms. Support is vital for people with dementia and the help of families, friends and carers can make a positive difference to managing the condition.

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