What is Dementia?

For most people, Dementia means memory loss. However, Dementia affects a wide range of brain functions, including thinking, problem-solving, concentration and perception. Dementia is a progressive disorder, which means that at first, those changes would be very subtle, almost unnoticeable, and often attributed to one growing old. We all forget from time to time where we put our keys or the name of that grandchild! As Dementia usually affects people over the age of 65, it can be difficult to distinguish if any changes in our memory or thinking are simply down to age or an illness. However, sometimes those changes can happen before 65 and be a result of early-onset Dementia.

Is Dementia a mental illness?

No. Dementia is a neurological disorder, which means it affects how our brain functions. People living with Dementia face several daily challenges, from forgetting to lock doors, getting lost, or finding it difficult to focus on your favourite TV programme to struggling to say what’s on your mind. With this, there come frustrations, irritability, anxiousness, and low mood.

Although Dementia is not a mental illness, the symptoms of the disorder can lead to one developing a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. Some people with Dementia may also develop hallucinations (hear, see or smell things that are not there).

What causes Dementia?

There is no single cause of Dementia, and many factors can contribute to someone developing it. The most common types of Dementia are Alzheimer’s Disease and Vascular Dementia. Other types include mixed Dementia, Dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal Dementia.

Depending on the type of Dementia, the exact causes will differ. However, concisely, damage to the brain cells is the leading cause of Dementia.

Certain conditions can cause those brain cells to get damaged:

  • lack of blood or oxygen supply to the brain
  • vitamin deficiency
  • a head injury
  • an infection (such as AIDS)
  • pressure on the brain (from a tumour, for example)
  • a neurological disease (such as Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD))
  • an extended period of excessive alcohol intake
  • hydrocephalus (fluid build-up between the brain and the brain lining)

Is Dementia genetic?

Although Dementia is not hereditary, research shows that gene mutations can play a role in someone developing Dementia. Depending on the type, the part that our genetic make-up will play varies, but it is typically low.

 What are the symptoms of Dementia?

Each person’s experience of Dementia is unique to them. You might have similar experiences to others yet be affected in diverse ways. A person with Dementia will have cognitive symptoms (related to difficulties in thinking and memory).

They will often have problems with some of the following:

  • day-to-day memory – for example, difficulty recalling events that happened recently
  • concentrating, planning, or organising – for instance, problems making decisions, solving problems, or carrying out a sequence of tasks (such as making a cup of coffee or getting dressed)
  • visuospatial skills – for example, problems judging distances, which may lead to someone bumping into things or falling
  • orientation – for example, losing track of the day or date, getting lost or getting confused about the place they are at
  • language – for example, difficulties following a conversation or finding the right word for something

Someone living with Dementia may also experience mental health problems and some of the symptoms associated with them. The most common ones include feeling down, worried, withdrawn, apathetic, agitated, irritable, angry, and frustrated.

What does Dementia assessment involve?

An irrefutable diagnosis of Dementia can be conducted after someone has passed away by examining the brain.

In practice, a diagnosis of Dementia can be deduced with high accuracy by getting a thorough assessment of the history of the individual concerned, their current symptoms. This information is combined with additional medical and psychological evaluations.

The medical assessments identify biological factors typically found when someone has Dementia or evidence of brain degeneration.

The psychological assessment (or Neuropsychological Assessment) could indicate Dementia and the type. The evaluation asks people to perform tasks that typically people without Dementia tend to complete without problems. Examples include asking to recall general and specific information, as well as follow complex instructions. The number of errors performed during the tasks is compared with the number of errors expected by people without Dementia. Furthermore, the pattern of difficulties identified is possible to identify the type of Dementia.

What is the treatment for Dementia?

Although there is no cure for Dementia yet, an early diagnosis and some treatments may slow down the progress of the disease, so the person may be able to maintain their mental function and independence for longer.

A combination of medication and talking therapy with a Clinical Psychologist is the most effective way of helping someone living with Dementia maintain their mental and physical wellbeing for as long as possible. Talking therapy can also help the individual adapt to the symptoms of Dementia by learning strategies to compensate for their lost abilities. Talking therapy could help someone stay independent for longer.

Medication

Although medication does not cure Dementia, some medications can slow its progress in the initial stages. Depending on the type of Dementia you are diagnosed with, there will be different medications that you could be prescribed. Medication is the primary treatment offered to someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease as it can be particularly effective in stopping the progress. For someone with vascular Dementia, medication will be treating the underlying causes, such as high blood pressure.

Talking therapies and other non-pharmacological treatments for Dementia

  • Cognitive stimulation therapy (CST) – structured treatment aiming to improve cognitive functioning and maintain your brain active.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – looks at how feelings, thoughts and behaviour influence each other and how these patterns can be changed; effective treatment for depression and anxiety.
  • Cognitive rehabilitation – can enable an individual to retain skills and cope better, supporting people to be as independent as possible for as long as possible; these can include pillboxes, calendar clocks or practical tips on developing enduring routines.
  • Environmental adaptations, at home or garden.
  • Other activities can include reminiscence therapy, where people with Dementia can share their experiences and memories, music or art therapy.
  • Physical activity
  • Healthy and balanced diet
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