The government has today launched a campaign urging the public to learn the early signs of dementia. Several news sources have reported on the new initiative, designed to help boost early diagnosis by encouraging people to speak to their doctor if they detect the signs.
Many news sources have focused on the estimate that 6 in 10 people with dementia go undiagnosed, and that there may be up to 400,000 people in the UK who have not had their condition formally assessed.
The Department of Health campaign also highlights how the fear of dementia can put people off seeing their GP, which can stop them receiving the medical support that is most effective when started in the early stages of the disease. While dementia is not curable, getting an early diagnosis is essential, because there are services and treatments that can slow its progression and help people with dementia to enjoy a better quality of life.
What exactly is dementia?
Dementia is not a single condition; it’s a range of progressive conditions that affect the way in which the brain works. People with dementia generally experience a decline in functioning, memory, thinking, language and judgement abilities. The underlying causes of the diseases behind dementia are still largely unknown, but there is a significant amount of research being conducted to discover the causes and develop treatments.
There are several types of dementia, but the most common is Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of around two-thirds of UK dementia cases. The condition is caused by small groups of proteins (or plaques) developing in the brain and disrupting its functioning. Other types of dementia include:
- Vascular dementia: where problems with blood circulation leave parts of the brain without enough blood or oxygen.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies: where abnormal structures develop in the brain. It’s not known exactly how these structures develop or how they interrupt normal brain functioning.
- Frontotemporal dementia: where two regions of the brain begin to shrink, although this is much rarer than other types of dementia.
What are the signs of dementia?
The Department of Health suggests that people should speak to their GP if they, or someone they know, begin to exhibit the following signs of dementia:
- They have difficulty remembering recent events, but not events that occurred long ago.
- They have difficulty following conversations or TV programmes.
- They keep forgetting the names of friends or common objects.
- They aren’t able to remember things heard, seen or read.
- They keep repeating things they’ve already said, or have difficulty remembering what they were saying.
- They have difficulty with thinking and reasoning.
- They have mood changes, such as feeling anxious, depressed or angry about their memory loss.
- They feel confused in familiar environments.
- They hear that other people have started to notice and comment on their memory loss.
The symptoms of dementia tend to get worse as time goes on. The speed at which the disease progresses is different for different people, and for the various types of dementia, but generally progression takes several years.
How common is dementia?
As the government’s campaign has highlighted, a high proportion of dementia goes undiagnosed and therefore it is hard to estimate the number of cases in the UK. However, it’s thought that there are around 635,000 people in the UK currently living with the condition.
Dementia primarily affects older people, but it isn’t a “normal” part of ageing or inevitable, as some people might believe. In the UK there are around 10.3 million people aged 65 and over, which means that many millions of older people are not affected. In rare cases, younger people can develop dementia, and the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that in the UK approximately 16,000 people under 65 have some form of it.
Women are more likely to develop dementia than men are.
Is dementia treatable?
Dementia is treatable, but not curable. There are several treatments that are effective at slowing down the progression of the disease, enabling people to cope better with the illness and to improve their quality of life. These include:
- Services to support people with dementia and their families or carers. These include resources such as memory clinics and community services that can be made available following an early diagnosis. They are aimed at supporting people and helping them to live healthy, independent and productive lives for as long as possible.
- Medication and treatments for managing symptoms. The type of medication used varies depending on the type of dementia a person has and how far it has progressed. Non-medication treatments for dementia include group therapy that focuses on symptoms that affect thinking, emotions and behaviour.
- Interventions that help people with milder dementia in their everyday life. For example, simple steps such as placing a sign by the front door reminding them to take their house keys before going out.
There are a number of specific services available for people with dementia and their carers, including:
- social support services
- community dementia teams
- day centres and residential care
- home nursing and personal care
- specialist mental health services
Where can I learn more?
NHS Choices has information on several different aspects of dementia, as well as information for carers: