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Understanding dementia: types, symptoms and risk factors

If you've been experiencing problems with your memory or you've found yourself getting confused in familiar places, you may be worried these are signs of dementia. Other conditions can cause these symptoms too, so it's important to speak to your doctor if you're at all worried. 

What are the symptoms of dementia?

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

Problems with memory
  • Having trouble remembering the date and day of the week.
  • Forgetting the names of people or things.
  • Struggling to remember things that happened recently, even though you remember things from a long time 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, such as cooking too much or too little food. 
  • 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.
  • Having problems with spatial awareness.
Struggling to follow things 
  • Finding it difficult to follow conversations, particularly in groups.
  • Struggling to follow the storylines in television or books, or losing track while reading a 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.

Being forgetful or getting confused doesn't necessarily mean that you have dementia

As we get older, most of us experience some symptoms like these from time to time. It's important to remember that being forgetful or getting confused doesn't necessarily mean that you have dementia. Dementia-like symptoms can be caused by common, treatable conditions, including:

  • vitamin deficiencies
  • anxiety or depression
  • stress
  • side effects of medication
  • thyroid problems
  • urinary tract infections.

If you're worried, it's worth making an appointment to discuss things with your doctor. If you're worried about someone else, try to encourage them to see their doctor. For advice on this, click here to see our page on how to have an open conversation.

What are the types of dementia?

Dementia isn't a disease in itself – it's a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that affect the brain. There are many different types of dementia, depending on what's causing the dementia. Knowing which type of dementia you have means that treatment can be more specifically tailored to your 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 a lack of blood supply, for instance, following a stroke. 

Other types of dementia

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

The many different types of dementia and its related conditions can be overwhelming to someone who's received, or knows someone who's received, a dementia diagnosis. Ask your doctor if you have any questions.

Who is at risk of dementia?

There doesn't seem to be one single cause of dementia. Current research suggests that a combination of factors affects your overall risk of developing dementia.

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

What can I do to reduce my risk of dementia?

Studies have shown that people with healthier lifestyles have a lower risk of dementia. Doing what you can to protect your heart and stay active is beneficial – this includes:

  • eating a varied diet containing lots of fruit and vegetables
  • eating less salty and fatty foods, especially those high in saturated fat
  • only drinking alcohol in moderation
  • stopping smoking
  • exercising regularly
  • enjoying an active life with plenty of outside interests
  • asking your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol 
  • keeping your blood glucose well controlled if you have diabetes.

What should I do if I think I have dementia?

If you're worried you may have dementia it's important to book an appointment to see your doctor. If you think dementia may be affecting someone you know, try to encourage them to see their doctor – you could offer to go with them for support if they seem reluctant.

When you see your doctor they should discuss your symptoms with you. They may ask you some questions to test your thinking and memory and carry out some health checks to look out for other conditions that could be causing your symptoms. They might make a decision based on this, but they may have to refer you to a memory clinic or consultant with specialist knowledge for a fuller assessment. 

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We offer support through our free advice line on 0800 678 1602. Lines are open 8am-7pm, 365 days a year. We also have specialist advisers at over 120 local Age UKs.

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Last updated: Apr 08 2024

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