Dementia: what is the condition, signs, symptoms, and stages explained, and is there a cure?
Dame Barbara Windsor died of Alzheimer’s - the most common cause of dementia
According to the NHS, there are around 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia.
Following the death of actress Dame Barbara Windsor on 10 December, there has been much discussion around how dementia affects people and families and what can be done to prevent it from becoming aggressive.
The condition is linked with old age and lifestyle habits, but there is a range of things you can do to decrease your likelihood of developing dementia or to reduce the severity of the illness.
Here is what we know.
What is dementia?
The term dementia is related to the symptoms and changes caused by various diseases in the body.
These symptoms include struggling with problem solving, memory loss, confusion and behaviour changes.
Dementia is not a disease nor is it a natural part of ageing - instead it is the name given to the impact of other diseases which have a negative effect on daily life.
What causes dementia?
The most common disease that causes dementia is Alzheimer’s.
Vascular dementia on the other hand is caused by diseased blood cells. Blood vessels can become blocked and deprive the brain of oxygen.
Other illnesses such as alcohol related brain disorder and strokes may also alter how the mind works and cause dementia.
The impact of dementia on each person can vary depending on what part of the brain is affected and what disease is causing it.
Some strains of dementia have been linked to genetics in a small number of cases.These people may inherit dementia through a specific gene and are likely to be diagnosed before the age of 65.
The majority of people will carry a number of genes which can increase and decrease the risk of dementia.
These can be exacerbated by their lifestyle habits.
There has also been research carried out into early onset of dementia potentially being related to sports such as football and rugby – caused by a degenerative brain disease called “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE).
What are the early signs and symptoms?
Dementia is a degenerative disease, meaning it will get progressively worse over time.
There are different signs and symptoms experienced at the early and later stages of dementia.
According to Alzheimer’s society, common early symptoms include problems with:
- recalling recent events and memory loss
- Difficulty concentrating, planning or organising – this could include being unable to follow a sequence of tasks, such as cooking a meal
- misusing or struggling with common language – using the wrong words to describe or label something or struggling to piece together a sentence.
- visuospatial skills – for example, problems judging distances (such as on stairs) and seeing objects in three dimensions,
- orientation – getting lost in common places or being unable to recall the day or date
A recent study published by Dr Davide Bruno at the School of Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) also suggested forgetting the start of a story could be a tell-tale sign of early onset of dementia.
What long-term effects can dementia have?
Alzheimer’s is thought to have the slowest progression rate, while dementia caused by strokes or vascular dementia may have a significant impact on memory and cognitive ability in a shorter period.
People experience different symptoms at different stages, however, some of the more progressive challenges are:
- lack of mobility - this can be caused by medication, dementia diseases or a combination of dementia and the other factors which resulted in the diagnosis - such as having a stroke or high blood pressure.
- an increasingly poor memory - a dementia patient may begin to lose their memory of significant people or times in their life as the disease progresses.
- loss of communication - the inability to verbalise what they want to say, struggling to understand what is being asked of them or limited speech.
- weight loss and eating - in the later stages of dementia, patients may lose a considerable amount of weight due to a lack of appetite or inability to chew and swallow. Weight loss can lead to a poor immune system and inability to fight infections and struggling to physically eat could be a choking hazard. You should contact your GP if you are concerned about someone with this symptom of dementia.
What lifestyle habits may increase your likelihood of having dementia?
There are thought to be a number of factors which result in dementia and many are linked to health and lifestyle habits which form and continue throughout your life.
There are also factors which are unavoidable and dementia cannot be completely prevented.
Habits which could reduce your risk are:
- Eating a healthy diet - a balanced diet which includes protein, fats and carbs and is high in nutrient rich food such as fruits and vegetables can help prevent dementia and cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke and heart disease.
- Exercising regularly - take part in two and a half hours of aerobic exercise - such as walking or cycling - per week, as well as some strengthening exercises
- Do not smoke - smoking inhibits the ability for blood vessels to carry oxygenated blood around the body and can lead to strokes, cancer and high blood pressure too.
- Avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol - at most, you should aim to drink no more than 14 units each week, spread across at least three days. If you regularly drink much more than this, you’re at risk of alcohol-related brain damage.
- Challenge your mind - keeping your mind active is one of the most important ways to reduce the onset and severity of dementia. Think ‘use it or lose it’ - try studying a new language, completing crosswords, playing cards or board games and reading.
Factors which you cannot control are:
- Age - people over the age of 65 are most likely to suffer from dementia related diseases and it affects one in six people over 80.
- Sex - women are more likely to suffer from dementia than men, even after longevity is taken into account. It is not known why this is.
- Ethnicity - South Asian people (from countries such as India and Pakistan) and people of African or African-Caribbean origin seem to develop dementia more often. They are known to be more prone to diabetes and stroke and this is thought to be more closely related to lifestyle and diet factors than genetics.
Can Dementia be cured?
Currently, there is no cure for dementia, however there are therapies and drugs which can alleviate some of the related symptoms..
While drugs can curtail some of the effects, person-centred care such as taking part in hobbies and interests which the dementia patient has enjoyed throughout their past and recent years can support memory.
Psychological therapies can also support people who are struggling to cope with the confusion around dementia, and the changes they experience with regards to their mood and behaviour.
Continuing to eat healthily, exercise, read and avoid smoking and drinking will also support in slowing the progression to varying degrees.
For anyone experiencing dementia, or if you care for someone with dementia, support can be found via the following charities:
Alzheimer’s Society - 0333 150 3456 - 8am to 10pm everyday except Christmas
Age UK's Advice Line - 0800 055 6112 - 8am to 7pm everyday
Dementia UK - 0800 888 6678 - 9am to 9pm weekdays, 9am - 5pm weekends