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Understanding dementia

You may have had problems remembering things that have happened recently, or have found yourself getting confused in familiar places. You may be worried these are signs of dementia, though being forgetful doesn't necessarily mean you have dementia. 

What are the symptoms of dementia?

Dementia is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that occur when certain diseases or conditions affect the brain. The symptoms will depend on which condition is causing the dementia and which parts of the brain are affected. Some of the more common symptoms include:

Problems with memory
  • Having trouble remembering the date and day of the week.
  • Forgetting names of people or things.
  • Struggling to remember things that happened recently, even though you remember things from longer ago.
  • Forgetting where you put something or where things are kept.
Problems with thinking skills
  • Feeling your thoughts or memories are clouded.
  • Finding it takes you longer to process information.
  • Struggling to follow conversations.
  • Getting yourself in a muddle and being unable to arrange things in the right order.
  • Finding your decision making is affected, for example cooking too much or too little food. 
Disorientation
  • Feeling confused or even lost in a familiar place.
  • Being out and forgetting where you were going or how to get there.
  • Getting confused between night and day.
  • Problems with spatial awareness.
Struggling to follow things 
  • Finding it difficult to follow conversations, particularly in groups.
  • Struggling to follow the television, or losing track of a book or newspaper article.
  • Repeating things or forgetting what you were saying mid-sentence.
Mood and personality changes 
  • Experiencing mood swings. 
  • Becoming irritable or short-tempered.
  • Losing interest in hobbies and socialising.

If problems like these start to affect your daily life, it's worth making an appointment to discuss them with your doctor. If you're worried about someone else, try to encourage them to see their doctor. You could offer to go with them for support if they seem a bit reluctant. See our page on How to have an open conversation for more information on this. 

Being forgetful doesn't necessarily mean you have dementia

As we get older, many of us experience symptoms like these from time to time. Dementia-like symptoms can be caused by depression, vitamin deficiencies, stress, thyroid problems or urinary tract infections. If you're worried, you should see your GP.

What are the main types of dementia?

Dementia isn't a disease in itself, it's a term used to describe symptoms caused by other diseases that affect the brain. Knowing the type of dementia means treatment can be more specific to an individual's needs. 

The most common types of dementia are:

Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that targets the part of the brain that controls memory, language and thought. Alzheimer's and dementia often get confused with one another, which can cause upset and confusion. 

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia, after Alzheimer's disease. This type of dementia is caused when the brain becomes damaged due to lack of blood supply, for instance following a stroke. 

Other types of dementia

There are many other, rarer, types of dementia such as dementia with Lewy bodies or frontotemporal dementia. Conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease may lead to someone developing dementia. 

The many different types and related conditions can be confusing and overwhelming if you have received a dementia diagnosis or know someone with it. Ask your doctor if you have any questions.

Dementia in the UK

  • 850,000 people have dementia in the UK.
  • 1 in 6 people over 80 have dementia.
  • Only 43% of people with dementia have actually been diagnosed.

Who is at risk of dementia?

There doesn't seem to be a single cause of dementia. But current research suggests a combination of factors affect your overall risk of developing dementia.

  • Age is the most significant factor. The risk of developing dementia increases with age.
  • Genetics don't seem to play a significant part in your risk of developing dementia, even if your parent or relative has it. It's only in some cases of early-onset dementia where there appears to be a stronger genetic link, but this is very rare.
  • Unhealthy lifestyles have also been shown to increase your risk of dementia. 

What can I do to reduce my risk of dementia?

Those that follow a healthier lifestyle have been shown to have a lower risk of dementia. Doing what you can to protect your heart, as well as staying active, can be beneficial. Therefore, it's best to aim to:

  • eat a varied diet containing lots of fruit and vegetables
  • eat less salty and fatty foods, especially those high in saturated fat
  • drink alcohol in moderation
  • stop smoking
  • take regular exercise
  • enjoy an active life with plenty of outside interests
  • ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol 
  • keep your blood glucose well controlled if you have diabetes

See our pages on healthy eating and keeping fit for more information.

What should I do if I think I have dementia?

If you're worried you may have dementia or feel it may be affecting someone you know, it's important you go to your doctor.

Your doctor may carry out some tests to check your thinking and memory and decide what is causing your symptoms. They may make a decision based on this, but they may have to refer you for a fuller assessment to a memory clinic or consultant with specialist knowledge. 

Visit our Diagnosis and treatment page for more information about your next steps.

For more information call the Age UK Advice Line on 0800 678 1602.
We’re open 8am to 7pm, every day of the year.

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Last updated: May 20 2019

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