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What is dementia?

Dementia describes a range of symptoms that affect thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks.

Common signs of early dementia include memory loss, confusion or personality changes – and early detection of these signs will help with treatment and support. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.

Dementia itself is not a disease – rather it is a collection of symptoms caused by disorders that affect your brain. It can affect different cognitive functions, such as memory, language skills, understanding of information, spatial skills, judgment and attention.

The most common types of dementia include: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Lewy body disease and fronto-temporal dementia.

About 3 in 10 people over 85 years and almost 1 in 10 over 65 have dementia; while 1 in 4 people aged 85-89 have dementia. When a person younger than 60 develops dementia, it is called younger-onset dementia.

Early diagnosis of dementia will help with early treatment, although there is no cure for dementia.

Symptoms of dementia

The symptoms of dementia vary from person to person, and depend on the type of dementia the person has. That said, people with dementia will generally move through three stages, each with certain characteristics:

  • Early dementia: often this phase is put down to old age or overwork, and it only becomes clear that dementia is the cause in hindsight. A person may appear less willing to engage in everyday life, take longer with routine jobs, forget recent events, repeat themselves and perhaps have trouble with money.
  • Moderate dementia: during this phase, the signs of dementia are clearer. They will forget things like saucepans left on the stove, names of family and friends, and recent events. They will do things out of character; and may appear confused about where they are.
  • Advanced dementia: a person at this stage will need total care, as they may lose their ability to talk, they may be incontinent, they may not recognise family, and they may show aggression. Eventually, they will be completely bedridden.

Causes of dementia

There is no single cause for dementia, although there are a number of risk factors: your age, your genes, your general health and lifestyle.

While you have no control over getting older or your genes, you can take control of your health and lifestyle to reduce your risk of acquiring dementia when you get older.

Diagnosis and treatment of dementia

If you or someone you know is showing the signs of early dementia, it is important to see a doctor. They can rule out other conditions that can be mistaken for dementia like depression, pain or infection. An early diagnosis will enable the person with the condition to join in the discussion of treatment options and make plans for the future. It also enables other family members or carers to arrange sufficient support – such as respite care – particularly for the moderate and advanced stages.

Treatment of dementia involves providing a caring, supportive environment for the person with dementia.

There are some medications to help with the cognitive (memory and thinking) problems of dementia for people with Alzheimer’s disease. These medications might also be useful for people with vascular dementia or Lewy body disease.

Other medications can help with symptoms of depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances – although these will not delay its progress or provide a cure.

Further information and sources


This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you or someone you know may have the symptoms of dementia.


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