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What is dementia?

We explain how to spot the signs of dementia and the difference between this condition and mild cognitive impairment.
4 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. It can generally be divided into early-stage, moderate or end-stage. Dementia isn't 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. 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 caring for someone who has dementia, this will have a huge impact on your own life. Read our Caring for someone with dementia 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 such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia.

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: 14 Jul 2020