What is dementia?
The term dementia is used to describe a set of symptoms that occur when the brain is damaged by certain diseases including Alzheimer’s or a series of small strokes. The symptoms include memory loss, mood changes and problems with communication and reasoning. There are different types of dementia; the most common are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and mild cognitive impairment.
Dementia is a progressive disease which means the symptoms will gradually get worse. How fast it progresses depends on the individual person and the type of dementia they have. Each person is unique and will experience dementia in their own way.
Who gets dementia?
Dementia affects mainly men and women over the age of 65 and there are 800,000 people in the UK who currently experience the condition. However, dementia can affect younger people too: there are over 17,000 people in the UK under the age of 65 who suffer with dementia.
What types of dementia are there?
Alzheimer’s disease – This is the most common cause of dementia. During the course of the disease, protein ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ develop in the structure of the brain which causes brain cells to die faster than they normally would. The first signs of the illness are forgetfulness of recent events, repetition, confusing things or getting lost. Depression or irritability may also be seen.
Vascular Dementia – This is the second most common diagnosed dementia. If the supply of air or blood supply to the brain is disrupted, the cells may suffer damage and die causing vascular dementia. A common cause of this condition is a stroke or series of mini strokes. Some areas of the brain may be more affected than others and the symptoms are very similar to other types of dementia, however the way the disease progresses is in obvious steps rather than a gradual reduction in skills/abilities. Many people with vascular dementia are aware of the problems they are experiencing which can lead to increased frustration and risk of depression.
Dementia with Lewy bodies – This form of dementia gets its name from abnormal structures that develop inside the nerve cells of the brain, called Lewy bodies. Their presence in the brain leads to the degeneration of brain tissue. Symptoms can include disorientation, some memory loss, and difficulty with spatial awareness which can leads to trips, falls and hallucinations. Dementia with Lewy bodies is associated with Parkinson’s disease, however it can and does occur without this. For more information about Parkinson’s click here.
Mild Cognitive Impairment – Some people may notice the symptoms of dementia but a doctor may feel the symptoms are not strong enough to warrant a diagnosis of dementia so he will use the term ‘mild cognitive impairment’ (MCI). Having a diagnosis of MCI does not mean an individual will go on to develop dementia.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
Loss of Memory – Not all memory loss is related to dementia, some forgetfulness is normal. Dementia memory loss can affect short term memory, such as forgetting conversations earlier in the day, being repetitive or forgetting the way home from the shops. Long term memory will usually remain very good.
Mood Changes – People with dementia may be withdrawn, sad, frightened, frustrated or angry about what is happening to them.
Communicating problems – Some people experience problems expressing themselves and understanding things. They can get confused with words, have difficulty finding the right word to describe something and mix words up.
Not everybody with dementia will experience these symptoms to the same degree and not everybody will experience all of the symptoms.
Getting Dementia diagnosed
It is very important to get a proper diagnosis as this can help a doctor rule out any illnesses that might have similar symptoms, such as depression. A diagnosis can also mean it is possible to be prescribed drugs for Alzheimer’s disease.
A GP, a geriatrician (a doctor who specialises in the care of old people) a neurologist (a doctor who specialises in diseases of the nervous system) or a psychiatrist (a mental health specialist) are all able to diagnose dementia. The doctor may carry out a number of tests to check basic thinking tasks and the ability to perform daily tasks as well as a full physical examination but mostly dementia is diagnosed by ruling out other conditions so it is important that a person’s carers, friends or family go with them to the assessment in order to help give a full history of the problems.
What to do after a diagnosis
Accepting a diagnosis of dementia can be very difficult and may be frightening for the person with the condition and their loved ones. It is important to talk about the diagnosis and what it may mean for the future and for the person themselves to be involved and ask questions. Finding out about the condition and where to find support can help it seem less scary. For details of where to look for more information please call a support worker on 0121 788 1143.
Caring for somebody who has dementia
Living with or caring for someone who has dementia can be very upsetting and stressful and often leaving us feeling helpless. Here are some tips to try and make life a little easier.
- Learn about the condition and speak to experts. Once we start to understand something it becomes less scary and much easier to deal with.
- Take care what is it said in the presence of someone with dementia as they understand a lot more than they are given credit for. Try not to exclude them from conversations, especially about their condition. It is very easy to feel like you are losing control when you have dementia so by including them in any decision making they feel they have control of their own lives.
- Try not to be bossy and let them do something their own way instead of the way we think it ‘should’ be done.
- Go with the flow no matter how bizarre it seems. If a person with dementia wants to do something we might view as a little crazy, ask yourself, ‘who is it a problem for? Us or them?’ If it is us then try and let them just get on with it because does it really matter if they want to go to bed with their trousers on?
For more information go to www.dementiauk.org
What support is available?
Dementia Cafes – Support groups for people with dementia, their families and friends. These are ideal situations to meet people in a similar situation and receive advice in a safe space. For more information on dementia cafes visit alzheimers.org.uk
Singing for the brain – This is a service provided by the Alzheimer’s Society which uses singing to bring people together in a friendly and stimulating social environment. Singing can help people with dementia and their carers to express themselves and socialise in a fun and supportive group. For more information on singing for the brain visit alzheimers.org.uk
Local carers support groups – Solihull Carers Centre run three different support groups for adult carers in different areas of the borough. These are free and informal sessions for carers, giving the chance to take a break from your caring role. For a list of dates click here.
Admiral Nurses – Admiral Nurses are Registered Mental Health Nurses who work collaboratively with other professionals to improve the quality of life for people with dementia and their carers. Admiral Nurses provide advice and support for the carers along the dementia journey and help the family and loved ones better understand the condition. They also provide advocacy for people with dementia and their carers and give training to other professionals. The national helpline for the Admiral Nurses is 0845 257 9406 or you can look at http://www.dementiauk.org/what-we-do/admiral-nurses/ for more information.
Solihull Carers Centre – As well as Support Groups we can offer advice and a confidential listening ear to the carers of people with dementia. It can be a scary and uncertain journey and our support workers are always here to listen and help with any questions you have, just telephone us on 0121 788 1143.