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What is dementia?
- How common is dementia?
- Can dementia be inherited?
- What happens when someone has dementia?
- If you are worried about your memory, or the memory of someone else
- Treatment of dementia
- Research into dementia
- The importance of carers and family
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, accounting for between 50%-70% of all cases. This is a degenerative illness that affects the brain, making brain cells shrink or disappear so that certain information cannot be recalled or assimilated. Vascular dementia (more information) is the second most common type of dementia, a broad term used to describe dementia associated with problems of circulation of blood to the brain.
There are also other conditions that may cause or be associated with dementia, including AIDS, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, frontol temporal lobal degeneration, dementia with Lewy bodies, Down syndrome, brain tumours, brain haemorrhages and infections of the brain, exposure to toxins, certain types of head injuries and alcohol related dementia. For more information on the various types of dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Australia website or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.
One of the main symptoms of dementia is memory loss. We all forget things from time to time, but dementia is different – for example, normal forgetfulness may include misplacing the car keys, but a person with dementia may lose the keys and then forget what they’re used for. Another common symptom is behaviour changes.
However, it’s important to remember that every individual experiences dementia in a different way. Keeping this in mind we can generalise and say that in the early phase of dementia, often only apparent in hindsight, the person may:
- appear more apathetic
- be unable to adapt to change
- show poor judgement and make poor decisions
- have difficulty grasping complex ideas
- blame others for stealing lost items
- show changes to their personality
- become more forgetful of recent events
- repeat themselves or lose the thread of their conversation, and
- have difficulty handling money.
- be more forgetful of recent events
- be confused regarding time and place
- become lost if away from familiar surroundings
- forget names of family or friends, or confuse family members
- wander around the streets
- behave inappropriately
- see or hear things that aren’t there
- become very repetitive
- neglect hygiene or eating
- become more angry or frustrated, and
- become aggressive.
- be unable to remember occurrences for even a few minutes
- lose their ability to understand or use speech
- be incontinent
- show no recognition of friends and family
- need help with eating, washing, bathing, going to the toilet and dressing
- fail to recognise everyday objects
- be disturbed at night
- be restless, perhaps looking for a long-dead relative
- be aggressive
- have difficulty walking, and
- have uncontrolled movement.
The first step is to see your local doctor. If you have any of these symptoms your doctor, geriatrician or psychiatrist will take a detailed medical history and conduct a thorough range of physical, mental, neurological and neuropsychological tests to rule out any other similar medical conditions. They may also refer you to a specialist such as a neurologist or put you in touch with an Aged Care Assessment Team to help you organise support services.
Read more: Help for people living with dementia
A number of drugs are currently available for the treatment of dementia in Australia, falling into two categories: cholinergic treatments and Memantine. Cholinergic treatments offer some relief for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. These are subsidised under the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme if the patient has shown improvement on a mental function test in the first six months of treatment. Memantine can be used to treat people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease, but is not currently subsidised.
There are also medications available to treat the accompanying symptoms of dementia, including depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, hallucinations and aggressive behaviour. For more information about the medications used to treat dementia visit the Alzheimer’s Australia website.
Research conducted over the past decade has also indicated that a healthy lifestyle and physical and mental activity may help delay the onset of dementia. A healthy diet may be able to control risk factors such as high cholesterol levels and diabetes, and exercise may help manage cardiovascular risk factors, increase blood flow to the brain and stimulate nerve cell growth and survival. The Alzheimer’s Australia website or the Dementia Collaborative Research Centres website provides up-to-date detailed information about research into dementia, as well as information on how to participate in various types of research.
Read more: Caring for someone with dementia