Dementia is an umbrella term for progressive conditions that affect the brain. The brain is made up of nerve cells, known as neurons, that communicate with each other and share information to and from the brain. Dementia damages the nerve cells so this information can’t be sent efficiently.
Dementia can affect anyone at any age, but mainly affects those over the age of 65. Someone developing dementia before 65 is classed as having ‘young onset dementia’. 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, a figure that is set to rise to over 1 million in 2021.
There are over 200 variations of dementia, but the most common 5 are:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vascular dementia
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Mixed dementia
Dementia is not a natural part of ageing, and there is no way to avoid developing it, only ways to lower your risk. Everyone living with dementia will experience it in their own way.
This is the most common form of dementia, affecting more than 520,000 people in the UK.
Named after the doctor who first described it, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by changes in the structure of the brain. Proteins build up and form abnormal structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’, which cause the connections between nerve cells to be lost.
Alzheimer’s disease can develop gradually and affects concentration, decision making and everyday activities. People living with Alzheimer’s disease may have:
- Difficulty remembering recent events, but still have a good memory of the past
- Poor concentration on tasks
- Issues recognising people or objects
- Poor organisational skills
- Feel confused or disorientated
- Slow and/or repetitive speech, sometimes getting confused
- Reduced ability to perform everyday skills
- Problems with making decisions
There are drug treatments that can help boost the levels of some chemical connections within the brain which can help with symptoms. As Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, over time, more parts of the brain can be damaged, leading to the development of more symptoms. Progressive stages of Alzheimer’s can lead to some people believing things that aren’t true or seeing/hearing things that are not there. Some develop out-of-character behaviour, and even become distressed easily or aggressive. In later stages, some people may become less aware of what is happening around them and become frailer.
Vascular dementia affects around 150,000 people in the UK and is the second most common form of dementia.
It occurs when there is a reduced supply of blood to the brain because of diseased blood vessels. This is commonly caused by a stroke or series of small strokes (Trans Ischemic Attacks) which can suddenly cut off the supply of blood to the brain. Although not everyone who has a stroke will develop vascular dementia, around 20% of those who have suffered a stroke develop post-stroke dementia within the following 6 months.
The signs and symptoms of Vascular dementia can vary depending on where the damage in the brain is, but commonly they affect decision making and problem solving, following instructions, cause trouble concentrating and a slower speed of thought. Recalling recent events, struggling with language, visuospatial skills and mood changes can also affect someone in the early stages of Vascular dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia tends to affect people between 45-65 years and is caused when the nerve cells in the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain die, meaning signals sent between the nerve cells are lost.
This is also a progressive form of dementia and can affect personality and behaviour. There are three types of Frontotemporal dementia:
- Behavioural variant – two thirds of people diagnosed with Frontotemporal dementia have this type which affects someone’s personality and behaviour within the early stages. They may begin to act socially inappropriate, lose interest in people and lack motivation, lose sympathy, show signs of repetitive or compulsive behaviours, along with binge eating on sugary and/or fatty foods.
- Progressive non-fluent aphasia– those with this form of Frontotemporal dementia may find difficulties with language. Their speech may become slow and hesitant, stuttering, errors in grammar, and difficulty understanding complex sentences.
- Semantic dementia – this form is very similar to the previous, but people can begin to lose their vocabulary and understanding of words. Symptoms could be asking the meaning of common words, difficulty finding the right word and struggling to recognise familiar people or objects.
Dementia with Lewy bodies
This is a progressive condition that affects movement and motor skills. Someone with dementia with Lewy bodies may be prone to falling, have tremors, struggle to swallow, shuffle when they walk, experience disturbed sleep patterns or have visual and auditory hallucinations.
Lewy bodies are small deposits of protein that appear in the brain’s nerve cells and have been linked to low levels of important chemicals that provide messages to nerve cells and a loss of connections between nerve cells. Lewy bodies also cause Parkinson’s disease, and how someone is affected by dementia with Lewy bodies depends on where the Lewy bodies are in the brain. Lewy bodies at the base of the brain are linked with movement problems, whilst Lewy bodies on the outer layer are links with mental abilities.
Being diagnosed with two types of dementia is possible, with the most common being Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Someone living with mixed dementia may experience symptoms associated with both types of dementia.
Dementia is not a natural part of growing older but there are treatments and support to help those who are living with a form of dementia. Research is being conducted to find out more about the causes of dementia and find a cure. Charities such as Dementia UK, Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK provide support for those living with the effects of dementia.