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What is dementia?

We explain how to spot the signs of dementia and the main types, including Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
5 min read
In this article
What is dementia?  Spotting the signs of dementia  Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) 
What are the different types of dementia?

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. 

 

Alzheimer’s and other dementia types affect more than 850,000 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 loved one to see their GP if you or they are worried that they’re suffering from memory loss. 

 

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 makeup, emotional resilience and prescribed medication. 

Spotting the 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 loss are treatable 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 memory deteriorates will vary, too, as will how a person diagnosed with dementia is affected and what symptoms they have. However, dementia usually affects people’s memories of recent events, rather than events that happened long ago. This is because it affects the storage of new memories in the brain.

If you are are caring for someone who has dementia, this will have a huge impact on your own life. Read our being a carer guide for advice and information on getting the support you need.

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Use our directory to find support groups for carers and people living with dementia.

Listed below are some common early signs of dementia. 

Memory loss affecting 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 feeling lost in familiar surroundings. 
  • 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 

  • Having 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.

Misplacing objects 

  • Losing things and being unable to retrace where they were left. 
  • 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 when they wouldn't normally have done so.
  • Paying less attention to personal grooming and hygiene.
  • Forgetting to pay bills.

Withdrawal from work or social activities 

  • Withdrawing from hobbies or sports.
  • Becoming less engaged in social and/or family activities.
  • Becoming unable to participate in a favourite hobby for no apparent reason.

Changes in behaviour and personality 

  • Confusion or paranoia.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Mood changes. 
  • Becoming easily upset. 
  • Becoming aggressive. 

All these could be signs of other conditions, but if you notice these changes in the person you’re supporting, encourage them to visit their GP to get a diagnosis.

I'm my wife's sole carer and now do everything, from cleaning and shopping to driving, bathing, toileting, and cooking. I wouldn't guarantee she knows I'm her husband, but she knows I care for her.

 

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) 

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a term for persistent memory problems that aren't severe enough to affect day-to-day functioning. 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 and 20% of people over the age of 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 and 70% of people actually see an improvement in their symptoms. 

 

As with dementia, treatable causes of memory loss should be ruled out before diagnosing MCI.

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What are the different types of dementia?

There are a number of different types of dementia, which include the following main types. 

Alzheimer’s disease

This is the most common form of dementia, affecting more than 60% of those diagnosed with dementia. It's named after Alois Alzheimer, the doctor who first described the way this physical disease affects the brain. It's a progressive disease caused by proteins building up and forming abnormal structures called 'plaques'. Nerve cells eventually die and over time more parts of the brain are damaged, resulting in worsening of symptoms.

Vascular dementia 

This is the second most commonly-diagnosed dementia affecting around 20% of people with dementia – more than 111,000 people in the UK. 

Dementia with Lewy bodies 

This form of dementia affects 10–15% of people diagnosed with dementia in the UK. As well as causing Alzheimer's-type symptoms, Lewy body dementia can cause hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren't there) and falls or walking difficulties. Lewy body dementia often progresses more rapidly than Alzheimer’s. 

Frontotemporal dementia or Pick's disease

This is a less common form of dementia and covers many different conditions. It affects the frontal lobes of the brain, which are concerned with behaviour, planning and the control of the emotions. The area also controls speech. As a result, as nerve cells die in this part of the brain, symptoms of frontotemporal dementia include changes in personality and behaviour, and difficulties with language.

Other types of dementia 

Rarer types include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, HIV-related cognitive impairment and Parkinson's disease dementia.  

 

The Alzheimer’s Society gives more information about each of these types of dementia, including common symptoms, diagnosing and treatments.

Further reading

Living well with dementia

Dementia is life changing, but it shouldn’t stop you from living an independent life for as long as possible.

Last updated: 27 Aug 2019