As World Alzheimer’s Month – a global campaign to improve people’s understanding of the condition – comes to an end, Aileen Waton, Head of Dementia for Bupa UK, addresses the confusion and draws on more than 12 years’ experience in aged care to answer the most Googled questions around dementia.
Aileen says: “Whether it’s affecting us personally, or a friend or loved one, dementia is becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society. All the same, many people still shy away from discussing it, which means that there are still questions that need to be answered.
“By doing this, hopefully people will realise that it’s not all doom and gloom and, with the right support, those with dementia can still live well.”
The most Googled questions around dementia are
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term referring to a number of different conditions that affect the brain – in particular a person’s cognitive skills, like memory and communication. It’s thought that 850,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with a form of dementia.
There’s often confusion about the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most prevalent type of dementia, but there are many others.
What are the signs of dementia?
One of the most common symptoms of dementia is memory loss, like forgetting names or the day of the week. Everyone’s susceptible to this sometimes, but you should take note if it’s becoming a more frequent occurrence.
One that always surprises people is that dementia can change our preferences for food and drink. This happens when it impacts the way our brain interacts with our taste buds, meaning people don’t experience food or flavours in the same ways. As a result, people might suddenly change their diets and develop completely new preferences, particularly for stronger or sweeter tastes. If an older person develops a sweet tooth out of the blue, this could be a sign.
Another sign is when someone begins to lose track of money or paying their bills. This occurs as dementia causes our memory and reasoning skills to decline.
Dementia can also leave people feeling isolated and confused, so it can lead to behavioural changes. Someone might become more introverted, or exhibit angry outbursts, depression or anxiety. If you’re seeing a loved one demonstrating these behaviours, speak to your GP as soon as possible.
What are the types of dementia?
There are well over 100 different types of dementia, but the most prevalent four include:
Alzheimer’s disease: This is the most common form of dementia and accounts for around two thirds of cases – that’s around half a million people in the UK. In simple terms, Alzheimer’s causes parts of the brain to shrink along with the build-up of certain proteins. As a result, the condition progresses gradually over time.
Vascular dementia: This is the second most common type of dementia, and is typically brought on by a stroke or ‘mini-stroke’ leaving brain cells starved of oxygen. Unlike Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia typically advances in large, noticeable jumps.
Dementia with Lewy bodies: This type of dementia accounts for around 10% of cases in the UK. It’s caused after proteins build up in nerve cells in the brain, which prevents them from functioning normally. People who have dementia with Lewy bodies may experience hallucinations, trouble sleeping and difficulty moving – including stiffness and shaking, similar to Parkinson’s disease.
Frontotemporal dementia: Although this is a less common strand of dementia, it’s one of the main causes for dementia in people under 65. As the name implies, it affects the frontal lobes of the brain – which control our emotions, behaviour and problem-solving abilities – as well as the temporal lobes. These lobes are essential for our recognising of things like people and objects, and of the meaning of words.
What is early onset dementia?
Also known as young onset dementia, this was typically defined as affecting people under 65, although doctors are moving away from specific age brackets. It’s thought to affect around 42,000 people in the UK, accounting for around 5% of cases of dementia.
While there are a number of different causes, it’s often associated with frontotemporal dementia. As such it can affect people’s movement, including their walk or co-ordination.
Specialist help is available to people concerned about young onset dementia, so speak to your doctor as soon as possible if you have any worries.
How can you test for dementia?
Doctors can run a number of tests, and will also assess patients’ symptoms and medical history. One of the most common tests is known as the MMSE test, which asks a number of questions to assess mental capabilities including memory, attention and language.
The results can indicate how severe someone’s dementia is, and also give an indication of the speed it’s progressing.
What support is available for people with dementia?
While dementia can be a daunting diagnosis, there’s a lot of support available and there’s no reason that people with dementia can’t still live well with the right help.
The Bupa UK Dementia Hub has a wealth of information, including support for carers. Other charities such as Alzheimer’s UK also provide useful tips and advice.
As dementia progresses, it may be worth considering assisted living or a care home. Trained staff can provide around-the-clock support in a specially-adapted environment. Likewise they can offer tailored activities, to help ensure people are still living well.
There may also be financial support available for those affected by dementia, including the likes of care and mobility or housing benefits. Carers may also qualify for a carer’s allowance. Again, the Alzheimer’s Society has a really comprehensive guide on your different options.
What are the stages of dementia?
Some experts use the seven stages of dementia, identified by Dr. Barry Reisberg. These range from a 1, with no noticeable symptoms, to a 7 which applies to very severe cases.
Everyone’s dementia journey is different though, particularly as the various types of dementia progress in different ways.
A lot of people don’t realise that dementia develops in the brain long before noticeable symptoms occur. It can take 20-25 years before we notice it – so someone who’s experiencing their symptoms aged 70 might have had the condition since their mid-forties.
That said we still consider the ‘early stages’ of dementia as after symptoms become noticeable. Symptoms at this stage might include forgetting of names, dates, or recent conversations. People might also find themselves becoming more distracted. Depending on their severity, these symptoms may disrupt someone’s day-to-day activities, but with the right support someone can still live well.
It’s in the ‘later stages’ that day-to-day life becomes more effected, and someone will rely more heavily on others for care. People with later stage dementia tend to be more frail and will exhibit more severe symptoms, like memory loss and behavioural changes. People are also more likely to experience weight loss – which can in turn affect their immune system and overall health – so it’s important that they get sufficient food and nutrients.
What are Dementia Friends?
Dementia Friends is a fantastic initiative started by the Alzheimer’s Society, and something I’d strongly encourage people to get involved with. It educates people on dementia, and the ways in which they can support those living with it. It also encourages them to spread the word, so that others can make a difference too.
Can dementia be cured?
Unfortunately there’s no cure yet, nor is there a way of slowing its progression. That’s why it’s so important that we all understand how to support people living with the condition, while also taking steps to reduce the risk of developing it ourselves.
Can dementia be caused by alcohol?
While drinking is rarely encouraged by experts, a sensible alcohol intake is unlikely to trigger dementia.
That said, sustained heavy drinking can lead to types of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), including alcoholic dementia. Excessive drinking can also increase your risk of heart attacks and strokes, which can trigger other forms of dementia.
Essentially, a healthy heart means a healthy brain. By leading a healthy lifestyle and keeping an eye on your blood pressure, weight and cholesterol, you can reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Bupa has over 130 care homes in the UK, caring for around 6,500 residents. As well as focusing on providing person-centred dementia care within its care homes, it also hosts the Bupa Dementia Hub – a free, online resource offering practical advice on the condition. More details are available at bupa.co.uk/dementia.