Here we explain what dementia is, and the different types of dementia, including Alzheimer's and vascular dementia. We also offer advice on spotting the signs of dementia.
Alzheimer's and other dementia types affect more than 750,000 people in the UK, most of them older people. Here we explain the symptoms of dementia and why it's a good idea for your elderly relative or friend to see their GP if you're worried that they're suffering from memory loss.
On this page you can find out more about:
1. What is dementia?
2. Signs of dementia
3. Types of dementia
4. Seeing the GP about dementia
5. Mild cognitive impairment
What is dementia?
The word ‘dementia’ refers to a group of symptoms that affect the brain (these include recognition, memory, language and planning), which deteriorate over time.
Dementia isn’t a disease and nor is it a natural part of ageing. It also isn’t usually inherited.
While the chances of developing dementia increase with age, the speed of deterioration varies according to the type of dementia as well as a person’s physical make-up, emotional resilience and prescribed medication.
Signs of dementia
One of the most often talked about symptoms of dementia surrounds those frustrating memory lapses for names and words on the tip of the tongue. But taken in isolation, these don’t necessarily spell the onset of dementia; they can simply be the natural ageing of the brain or other conditions.
For example, losing concentration or withdrawing from people could be caused by anxiety or depression, and being confused could be a side effect of taking medication. Many common causes of memory problems are treatable (see Causes of memory loss) and some memory changes are normal as people get older.
Dementia is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse over time. This can make it difficult to spot what’s happening, or to know when to seek help. Each person will experience dementia in a different way.
The rate at which their memory deteriorates will vary, too, as will how they are affected and what symptoms they have. However, dementia usually affects people’s memories of recent events, rather than events that happened long ago.
Listed below are some common early signs of dementia.
Memory loss impacting on your relative’s day-to-day life
- Frequently forgetting key dates, such as appointments or relatives' birthdays
- Asking for things or for information over and over again
- An increasing reliance on memory aids or family member support
- Forgetting what happened earlier in the day
- Getting lost or wandering.
- Difficulties concentrating
- Problems following conversations or TV programmes.
Planning and organisational difficulties
- Struggling to follow a plan or work with numbers, for example following a recipe or paying a bill
- Difficulties completing familiar tasks, such as driving to the shops or to work.
Losing track of time or place
- Forgetting where they are, or how they got there
- Lack of understanding of dates, seasons or time.
Vision and visual problems
- Difficulties judging distance, colour or contrast
- Difficulties reading.
Problems with speaking or writing
- Beginning to have trouble following or joining a conversation
- Struggling with vocabulary, such as finding the right word
- Forgetting the names of family and friends, or of everyday objects.
- Losing things and being unable to retrace where they left them
- Accusing others of moving or taking items.
Increasingly poor judgement
- Poor judgement around money, for example signing up to a door-to-door sales pitch
- Paying less attention to personal grooming and hygiene
- Forgetting to pay bills.
Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Withdrawing from hobbies or sports
- Less engaged in social and/or family activities
- Forgetting how to complete a favourite hobby.
Changes in behaviour and personality
- Confusion or paranoia
- Loss of motivation
- Mood changes
- Becoming easily upset
- Becoming aggressive.
If you believe that your relative is exhibiting any of the signs outlined above, you should encourage him or her to visit their GP.
Types of dementia
There are a number of different types of dementia, which include the following main types.
This is the most commonly diagnosed type of dementia, affecting around 417,000 people in the UK. For more information, see the NHS page on Alzheimer's.
The second most commonly-diagnosed dementia (after Alzheimer's) is vascular dementia. It's a common form of dementia that affects more than 111,000 people in the UK. For more information, see the NHS page about vascular dementia.
Dementia with lewy bodies
This form of dementia affects around 100,000 people in the UK. Symptoms are similar to those of Alzheimer's, but people might also experience hallucinations and Parkinson’s-type symptoms, such as falls or difficulty with walking. This disease often progresses more rapidly than Alzheimer's. For more information about this form of dementia, see the NHS page about dementia with lewy bodies.
This is a relatively rare form of dementia that can run in families. For more information about frontotemporal dementia, see the NHS page about frontotemporal dementia.
Other types of dementia
Less common types include Parkinson’s disease types of dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and HIV-related dementia. For more information about rarer types of dementia see the Alzheimer's Society website.
Seeing the GP about dementia
Some people with dementia are unaware of their memory loss or find it difficult to admit there is a problem as they may be embarrassed, so they may be reluctant to visit a GP.
However, it can be very helpful for your relative to go see a doctor as they can make sure that he or she isn’t suffering from treatable memory loss, make a dementia diagnosis if possible, and arrange for support and care to help you and your relative.
It can be a good idea for you to come along to the appointment as GPs often find it useful to have insights from family members or friends about symptoms and problems, and someone with memory problems can find it hard to describe what has been happening.
If your relative isn’t happy to have you come along to a GP appointment, you could write to the doctor outlining your concerns instead. While doctors can’t share information about your relative’s health with you without their permission, they can take notice of your information when assessing their health.
If you’re afraid for your loved one’s safety, you can contact social services. Regardless of the path you take, it's almost always better to be honest with what you’re doing and work with your relative rather than risk losing their trust.
For tips on how to talk to your relative about difficult subject, read our guide to Talking about care options.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a term used to describe the condition of people who have minor persistent memory problems, but are otherwise functioning reasonably well. It's been called other things in the past, for example, 'age-associated memory impairment'.
MCI is relatively common, with some studies estimating that between 5-20% of people over 65 have it when they have their memory tested.
If someone has MCI, they have an increased risk of developing dementia, but there is no way to reliably predict who will go on to be diagnosed with dementia. Only around 5% of people with MCI go on to develop dementia each year and between 40-70% of people actually see an improvement in their symptoms.
As with dementia, MCI symptoms can be caused by factors such as drugs or vitamin deficiencies, so if your elderly relative’s healthcare professional suspects MCI, they should follow up with further tests before making the diagnosis.
- Diagnosing dementia: our step-by-step guide will steer you through the process of seeking a professional diagnosis.
- Domiciliary care: find out about the options available if your relative needs extra help around the home.
- Care services directory: find out about support groups and domiciliary care services for people who live with dementia.
Page last reviewed: 20 May 2016
Next review due: 31 January 2018