What is dementia?

Dementia has recently overtaken cancer as the most feared illness for the UK’s 55 and over age group and for many years it has been the great unspoken, much like cancer once was.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders. Essentially, it is a collection of symptoms that can cause long term and an often-gradual decrease in the ability to think, remember and carry out simple everyday tasks.

Dementia arises when the brain is damaged (through loss or impairment of brain nerve cells), which can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other diseases. Dementia consists of a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Memory Loss – Individuals’ short-term memory would be affected, such as forgetting where they have placed items or forgetting what they did the previous day.
  • Communication issues – individuals may find it difficult to find words to describe things
  • Mood Changes – such as depression or possibly anger
  • Hallucinations (dependent on the type of dementia)

Dementia can further deteriorate over a period of time; the speed of this progression can vary depending on the individual.

Learn more about Trinity Homecare’s specialist dementia care.

Even a few decades ago, only a few medical specialists had heard of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, (its most common form), but as our understanding of the brain has grown alongside vast developments in neuroscience and brain imaging, science has been able to identify and differentiate many different types of dementia.

How many different types of dementia are there and what are the symptoms?

There are many types of dementia and different diseases that may cause dementia but the three main types include the following:

Alzheimer’s disease

  • This is the most common form of dementia in the UK
  • According to NHS Choice, Alzheimer’s is estimated to affect around 850,000 people.
  • It is characterized by “plaques” which live between the dying cells in the brain and “tangles” which live within the cells, both of which are due to protein abnormalities.
  • The brain tissues in a person with Alzheimer’s have progressively fewer nerve cells and connections and the loss of cells leads to the brain shrinking.
  • The first sign of Alzheimer’s disease is usually minor memory problems. This could be forgetting about recent conversations or events, or forgetting the names of places and objects. (This does not include simple memory lapses.)

Symptoms include

  • Confusion, disorientation and getting lost in familiar places
  • Difficulty planning or making decisions
  • Problems with speech and language
  • Problems moving around without assistance and difficulties performing self-care tasks like dressing or bathing.
  • Personality changes, such as becoming aggressive, demanding and feeling suspicious of others

Vascular dementia

  • Vascular dementia is a common form of dementia that, according to NHS Choice, is estimated to affect more than 135,000 people in the UK.
  • It is caused when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted.
  • This can develop as a result of a narrowing or a blockage of the small blood vessels deep inside the brain, and could also be caused by a single large stroke, or small mini strokes, known as Transient Ischaemic Attack or TIAs.
  • Research shows that it’s becoming increasingly common to experience a combination of both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Many cases of vascular dementia start with early warning signs, including slight:

  • slowness of thought
  • difficulty with planning
  • trouble with language
  • problems with attention and concentration
  • mood or behavioural changes

See your GP if you notice these signs because if it’s spotted at an early stage, lifestyle changes and treatment may be able to stop the vascular dementia getting worse, or at least slow its progression.

Dementia with Lewy bodies

  • Dementia with Lewy bodies is a common form of dementia and, according to NHS Choice, affects more than 100,000 people in the UK.
  • Lewy bodies are small, circular lumps of protein that develop inside the brain cells, causing dementia.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies is closely related to Parkinson’s disease, a condition, where part of the brain becomes damaged over a number of years, leading to physical symptoms, such as involuntary shaking, muscle stiffness and slow movement. A person with Lewy bodies dementia may also develop these symptoms.

People with Lewy body dementia not only experience problems with memory and judgement, like those with Alzheimer’s disease, but may also have difficulties concentrating and have trouble with visual perception.

They may also experience:

  • slowed movement, stiff limbs, and tremors, similar to those with Parkinson’s disease.
  • recurrent visual hallucinations
  • disturbed sleep at night and therefore feeling sleepy during the day
  • fainting, unsteadiness, and falls.
  • People with this type of dementia tend to swing from a state of alertness to drowsiness or staring into space. These extreme changes may be unpredictable and happen from hour to hour or day to day.

What causes dementia?

Dementia is caused by gradual damage or changes within the brain. It is the loss or impairment of brain nerve cells. According to scientific research these changes usually happen because of a build-up of what is known as abnormal proteins in the brain, which are different in each type of dementia.

Dementia can also be caused by a stroke or other diseases, like Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s disease, which can also cause brain cells to degenerate.

Interestingly, dementia is more common in the Western world where people live longer and a recent study from the Netherlands showed that older people who report feeling lonely are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information on the causes of dementia, have a read of NHS Choices.

Is there a dementia test?

There are a range of dementia tests and diagnostic procedures used to diagnose dementia. These include mental ability tests to evaluate short and long term memory, concentration and attention span, amongst other assessments. One of the most common mental tests is known as the mini mental state examination (MMSE). There are also blood tests and finally brain scans too.

To find out more, take a look at NHS Choices.

What is senile dementia?

Senile dementia is an outdated term that was once used when it was thought that extreme memory loss and confusion was a normal part of aging, rather than the result of a specific disease like Alzheimer’s or Vascular dementia.

What treatment is available for dementia?

There’s no real cure for the different forms of dementia but there are some medications available that may help relieve some of the symptoms and, in some people, slow down the progression of the condition.

See also: How to help someone with dementia.

Find out more on NHS Choices.

What are the different stages of dementia?

Memory loss is the symptom most associated with dementia, and so it can be worrying if someone you love starts to forget certain things. However, it’s common in old age and is not the only key symptom of dementia.

There are many types of dementia, the most common type being progressive dementia, also known as Alzheimer’s disease. This disease and its symptoms become worse over time, which is heart-breaking for everyone involved. Despite this, it’s important to know what your loved one will go through and what sort of care they need at each stage.

Here are the five stages of progressive dementia, part of the Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) used by professionals to measure the progression of the disease.

Dementia Stage 1 (CDR-0)

At this stage, the person living with dementia will show no signs of impairment, and is entirely able to look after themselves. Their memory is pretty good and their judgement remains normal. They shouldn’t need any help yet, but it’s important to keep an eye on them in case you notice any changes.

Dementia Stage 2 (CDR-0.5)

This is when your loved one will start to struggle slightly with their memory, and you may notice some inconsistencies. They may also have issues solving challenging problems and have trouble with timing. Work and social situations may start to become awkward for them, as they begin to develop memory slips. They are, however, perfectly capable of managing their own personal care.

Dementia Stage 3 (CDR-1)

Although the changes to your friend or relative remain mild at this point, you will start to notice that their short-term memory is becoming worse. Disorientation is more common and they may have trouble with navigation, especially when outside the home.

You’ll need to keep checking up on them, as they may forget to wash and do important household chores. Don’t forget that emotional support is just as important as physically being there for them.

Dementia Stage 4 (CDR-2)

Sadly at this stage your loved one will need help with the majority of tasks. You may have to wash them, accompany them when they go outside the house and even aid them with chores. It is much easier for them to become lost, as they are more disorientated than they were.

Their short-term memory is also severely impacted , so you’ll find that they struggle to retain new information, such as someone they’ve just met.

Dementia Stage 5 (CDR-3)

This is the most severe stage of dementia – there is no question that the person you love will need help from a full-time care worker. They cannot function without assistance and their memory loss is extreme – they may even struggle to remember who you are. Even if they have someone with them, it is almost impossible for them to go outside the house to attend social events and take part in other activities.

We understand how difficult it is to see your loved one, who used to be completely independent, transform into someone that needs round the clock care. One of the biggest worries for many is that their friend or relative will need to sell their home and move into a care home, but this is not the only option.

Are there special dementia carers?

There are many places throughout the country that specialise in support for dementia and at Trinity we’re proud to say we’re supporters of the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friendly Communities programme, which focuses on improving inclusion and quality of life for people with dementia.

At Trinity Homecare, we’re passionate about ensuring that all our clients with dementia live well and we’re aiming to train all of our carers to become Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Champions, which means they are specially trained in caring for people with the condition.

Are there dementia support groups?

There are many dementia support groups throughout the country, and the Alzheimer’s Society can help you find your local group.

If you’re interested in local support groups throughout Surrey, check out our blog for up to date information.

*Source: Research from www.stayinmyhome.co.uk*

** Source: Research paper: Tjalling Jan Holwerda, Dorly J H Deeg, Aartjan T F Beekman, et al: Research paper: Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL). Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.