Frequently asked questions about dementia

See also Different kinds of dementia

1. What is dementia?

Dementia is a clinical condition which may be caused by a number of different physical diseases of the brain. Most people with dementia experience a progressive decline in their mental abilities, including memory, concentration, reasoning, judgement, understanding and communication skills. Most people with dementia experience confusion, and some experience perceptual problems or hallucinations, or find they no longer recognise familiar faces or places. Some people with dementia may behave in ways which seem ‘out of character’, losing inhibitions, lacking empathy, becoming aggressive, excessively anxious, or apathetic. As the illness progresses, physical abilities are also affected, and people gradually become more dependent on others to help them with everyday activities and functions. The most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

2. What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is one kind of dementia; there are many other kinds such as vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia and so on. Everyone with Alzheimer’s has dementia; but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s.

It is important to make this distinction, because not only do some of the symptoms differ, but also some drug treatments may be safe and effective for people with Alzheimer’s disease but dangerous or ineffective for people with other types of dementia.

3. Is dementia a normal part of ageing?

Dementia is not a normal part of ageing, although the risk of developing dementia increases the older you get. Dementia is a disabling condition caused by damage to the brain. Not everyone who grows old develops dementia, and some people develop dementia before they grow old.

4. Is dementia just about memory loss?

With most types of dementia, people experience memory loss, which usually becomes increasingly severe as time goes on. However, most people with dementia also experience other symptoms which may be just as distressing as memory problems, if not more so.

These symptoms vary from person to person and may include altered sleep patterns, lack of vitality, restlessness, confusion, loss of judgement, progressive loss of language skills, anxiety and depression. People with dementia may experience problems with perception (for example not being able to distinguish between a shadow on the ground and a hole in the ground), delusions (believing things which are not true), and hallucinations (seeing, smelling or hearing things that aren’t real). Hallucinations are particularly common in Lewy body dementia. Eventually most people with dementia lose the ability to carry out everyday tasks without help.

In some cases, the most noticeable symptoms are not to do with memory loss at all, but to do with behaviour – for example when a person starts to behave in a surprisingly unreasonable, uninhibited or aggressive way, causing great distress to family and friends, while seeming not to realise or not to care about the hurt that is caused.

If other symptoms appear first, before memory problems become apparent, neither the person experiencing the symptoms nor the clinician who is assessing them may recognise that these are the first signs of dementia, particularly if the person is under 65.

It is therefore important for us all to recognise that although dementia is usually accompanied by memory loss, other symptoms may appear first, or may have a greater impact on the quality of life experienced by the person with dementia and those closest to them.

5. Is there a cure for dementia?

At present there is no cure for dementia. Research is ongoing, but it is unlikely that a cure will be found in the near future.

However, just because there is no known ‘cure’ does not mean that ‘there is nothing that can be done’ to make life better for people with dementia. Certain drug treatments may help to slow down the progression of the disease. Most important of all is the support that is offered by family, friends and professionals to help people with dementia to remain as active and independent as possible for as long as possible, and, when the advanced stage is reached, to live in comfort, safety and dignity, embraced by love and compassion.

6. Is dementia inherited?

This is a complex issue and research is ongoing. So far, we know that:

  • Some extremely rare types of Alzheimer’s disease (early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease) can be passed down through the family.

  • Other very rare conditions which usually lead to dementia, such as Huntington’s disease, can be inherited.

  • Having a close family member (parent, sister or brother) with Alzheimer’s disease, particularly young onset Alzheimer’s disease, may increase your risk of developing dementia.

    See Alzheimer’s Society Factsheet 405 ‘Genetics of dementia’

7. Am I at risk of developing dementia?

All of us are at risk of developing dementia, but for some people the risk is higher than for others.

For the majority of people, the greatest risk factor for developing dementia is age: the older we are, the greater the likelihood of developing dementia. It is estimated that one in fourteen people aged over 65, and one in six aged over 80, has dementia.

Lifestyle factors can increase our risk of developing dementia: poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and excessive alcohol intake all increase the risk of developing dementia.  Uncontrolled high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and being overweight can not only increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, but also increase the risk of developing dementia.

Family history may play a part in increasing our risk of developing dementia (see question 6 above.)

See Alzheimer’s Society Factsheet 450  ‘Risk factors for dementia’ and NHS Choices: ‘Can dementia be prevented?’

8. What can I do to reduce my risk of developing dementia?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia developing. However, we can reduce our risk of developing certain types of dementia by trying to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible.

What is good for the heart is also good for the head, so we should all try to follow these tips:

Get plenty of exercise

Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables

Cut down on sugary, salty and fatty foods

Do not smoke – smoking increases the risk of developing dementia as well as other serious conditions such as cancer and lung disease

Try to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight under control

If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation

Try not to be isolated; stay involved socially

Stay involved in things which interest you and which keep your brain active

The good news is that if you follow these tips you are also reducing your risk of other serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, and increasing your likelihood of living healthily for longer.

The Alzheimer’s Society website has an excellent section on Risk factors and prevention.