Dementia overview

There is much confusion about dementia and people have many questions including:

  • What is dementia?
  • What is the cause?
  • How many types are there?
  • Is Alzheimer’s and dementia the same thing?
  • Is memory loss the only symptom?

This section aims to answer some of those questions with a simple breakdown of the meaning of the word dementia, the symptoms and the diseases that cause it.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a disease in itself. The word dementia is used to describe a group of symptoms including problems with:

  • Memory loss
  • Communication & language
  • Planning & problem solving
  • Ability to focus
  • Reasoning & judgement
  • Visual perception
  • A decline in judgement and understanding
  • Confusion
  • Mood changes

For a person to be diagnosed with dementia, these symptoms must have become severe enough to affect daily life. As people become older they experience some cognitive changes known as ‘normal age related cognitive decline’, however these changes are barely noticeable. Some people experience greater changes which are noticeable to themselves and other but do not have a significant impact on their daily lives, this is known as ‘mild cognitive impairment’

What is the cause?

There are many diseases which cause the symptoms of dementia and each type affects different parts of the brain. This means that in the earlier stages, the symptoms a person experiences will depend on the type they have.

Although the symptoms of dementia are often different in the early stages they become more similar in the later stages. This is because most types are progressive, which means that the structure and chemistry of the brain become increasingly damaged over time, affecting more areas in the brain. The person’s ability to remember, understand, communicate and reason gradually declines.

Although most types of dementia are caused by progressive diseases i.e. they are irreversible and will get worse over time, the symptoms of dementia can also be caused by reversible conditions which don’t inevitably get worse over time and where recovery is possible, such as a B12 deficiency or brain tumour.

How many types are there?

There are a number of diseases which cause dementia, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.
  • Vascular dementia.
  • Mixed dementia.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies.
  • Frontotemporal dementia .
  • Many other rarer forms of dementia.
What is dementia?
It is possible to have more than one type of dementia at the same time.

Is Alzheimer’s and dementia the same?

Alzheimer’s is one type of disease which causes the symptoms of dementia but there are many others. So one person’s dementia symptoms may be caused by Alzheimer’s but another person’s dementia may be caused by another disease such as dementia with Lewy bodies.

Is memory loss the only symptom?

Although memory loss is one of the primary symptoms in certain types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, in other types of dementia, such as dementia with Lewy bodies day to day memory usually remains fairly intact in the earlier stages of the disease.

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