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In 2013, dementia affected 46 million people and experts predict this will rise to 131 million by 2050. There's currently no cure, but supporting treatments are available, so if you suspect you're suffering from dementia, or a loved one is showing signs, it's essential to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Dementia is a group of symptoms that are caused by damage to the brain. They lead to a decline in mental and physical abilities, in the worst cases leaving a person unable to care for themselves.
The most common reason for dementia is when brain cells die more quickly than they should. It mostly affects older people. Chances of developing dementia rise over the age of 65 to 1 in 20. This jumps again to 1 in 5 over 80s. Under the age of 65 only 1 person in 100 develops dementia.
Symptoms can appear gradually and worsen over time. It's not unusual to notice small symptoms becoming worse over months and years, although some cases develop rapidly. There are different types of dementia and although the most common symptom is memory loss, other symptoms vary. Here are the most common.
Alzheimer's disease is due to a reduction in brain cells - which mean the brain shrinks in size.
It affects the cerebral cortex that processes thoughts and is responsible for complex tasks such as memory. Proteins called plaques and tangles build up in the cortex so connections are lost. Plaques also change the way brain messages are transmitted.
Vascular dementia is caused by narrowing of the arteries so that less blood reaches the brain cells. When this happens the blood cells, which are starved of oxygen, begin to die.
Narrowing of the arteries is called atherosclerosis. It also causes high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. Atherosclerosis is more common in smokers and diabetics.
Symptoms are slight in the early days but if brain cells continue to lose oxygen symptoms become more severe including:
This form of dementia occurs when proteins form inside brain cells. Experts think this affects the brain's neurotransmitters. It's closely related to Parkinson's disease.
Much the same as Alzheimer's but Lewy bodies dementia may also include the symptoms of:
Frontotemporal dementia is caused by shrinkage to the temporal and frontal brain lobes. It's more common in the under 65s than other types of dementia and may be inherited. Symptoms start mildly and progress to more serious symptoms over time such as:
Although these are the main types of dementia, other illness can cause similar symptoms and these include depression, encephalitis, HIV-related infections, head injury, a lack of vitamin B or thyroid hormones, and alcohol abuse.
People with developing dementia and their carers may first notice signs of dementia when they are unable to carry out activities previously simple to them, such as confusion over money in the supermarket or getting lost in a familiar place. Losing objects is another common sign of dementia. Constantly misplacing keys, glasses, or wallets only to discover them in odd places like the fridge or bin is a common occurrence.
Close family and friends may also spot early signs of behavioural change such as aggression, disinterest and saying outrageous things.
A reduction in the amount of social activities including hobbies, dog walking or a lack of interest in a TV series for example should be taken seriously, not least because this can also lead to depression.
There no cure for dementia so prevention is important.
The NHS recommends a healthy diet because overweight people increase their risk of high blood pressure, for example fatty foods increase cholesterol levels which narrows arteries. A diet that includes vegetables and fruit with plenty of whole grains can reduce the risks. Keeping salt levels low is important too as salt increases the volume of blood and so ups your blood pressure. Aim to consume no more than 6 grams a day.
Dementia is common, but that doesn't make it easier to deal with. It's an upsetting illness that puts immense strain on individuals and their families. Concerns about safety, personal care and the ability to perform everyday tasks like boiling the kettle suddenly become of the utmost importance. It can be traumatic to witness the decline of a previously capable parent for example.
Families can help by printing out a large calendar with the year, month, day and date clearly indicated alongside tasks for the day. Stimulating the brain with simple puzzles, stories and crafts will keep the brain working. Alongside this, physical activities such as taking a walk with them is important to keep good bodily health.
Often simply being there comforts a person with dementia. The world can be a frightening place when you're unsure of what is happening around you.
It's important to see your doctor immediately when signs appear. A healthy lifestyle will help, particularly against vascular dementia, and there are some drugs that slow down the progression.
Seek help as early as possible to make sure all the support and information you need is in place.