Home·Understanding Dementia: What Is It And What Are The Symptoms?

Defining Dementia: What Is It And What Are The Symptoms?

The pressures on the health status of Australians have been building in recent years and in addition to the viral pandemic, there is another growing disease burden – dementia.

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Dementia is now the third most common medical condition leading to the need for paid and unpaid care.

There’s lots of misunderstanding about dementia. Contrary to popular belief, it is not one disease. A good way to consider the many types of dementia is to look at the word as an ‘Umbrella Term’, covering a large group of diseases that cause a progressive decline in a person’s function. Dementia is a syndrome – a collection of symptoms related to biological changes in the brain that are progressive and irreversible. It is also important to remember dementia is not a normal part of ageing.

Dementia is usually chronic and progressive as it leads to decline in cognitive function (ie. the ability to process thought). Dementia affects behaviour, memory, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language and judgement. Consciousness is not affected, but changes in cognitive function are commonly accompanied by changes in mood, emotional control, behaviour, or motivation.

Developing an understanding of the various types of dementia enables us to differentiate between misinformation, myths and unhelpful comments that cause distress for people with dementia, their carers, and loved ones.

What are the types of dementia?

The most common types of dementia are:

Alzheimer’s Disease
The most common type of dementia responsible for 60% to 80% of cases.

  • Early Symptoms: difficulty remembering names and recent events.
  • Late Symptoms: impaired judgement, disorientation, confusion, behaviours of concern, difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking.

Vascular Dementia
Also described as multi-infarct or post-stroke dementia. It is the second most common cause of dementia.

  • Early Symptoms: impaired judgement, and inability to plan or complete a task, memory loss is not always present.
  • Late Symptoms: high levels of confusion, mood changes, memory problems, hallucinations.

Lewy Body Dementia

  • Early Symptoms: disturbed sleep, visual hallucinations, muscle rigidity, ‘freezing’ like Parkinson’s Disease.
  • Late Symptoms: Symptoms common in Alzheimer’s Disease – difficulty remembering names and recent events, impaired judgement, disorientation, confusion, behaviours of concern, difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking.

Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
There are several variants – Behavioural FTD, Pick’s Disease, Primary Progressive Aphasias, and Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.

  • Typical Symptoms include behaviours of concern, personality changes, and difficulty with expressive and receptive language.

There are also dementia symptoms associated with other disorders of the brain:

  • Parkinson’s disease: problems with movement and Lewy Body or Alzheimer’s Disease type symptoms.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: a rapidly fatal disease that causes behaviours of concern, impaired coordination, and memory.
  • Huntington’s disease: a progressive brain disorder associated with a defective gene.
  • Chromosome 4: uncontrolled movements of the head, trunk, and limbs, severe decline in thinking, reasoning, and mood changes that include depression and irritability.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: a chronic memory disorder most often associated with severe Vitamin B1 deficiency (thiamine) because of alcohol misuse. Memory problems may be severe while other social skills appear unaffected. However, “confabulation” is common – the person presents memories they believe to be true without the intention to deceive.
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus: a brain disorder that causes memory loss, difficulty walking, and urinary incontinence.

These types of dementia are just some of the types, as there’s many more. Although dementia is most common after the age of 60, there are multiple causes of Juvenile Onset Dementia. For example, there are more than 70 chromosome disorders that cause the early onset of dementia.

Each type of dementia has its own cause, for example, it is thought that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by an abnormal amount of protein build up in and around the brain cells, whereas vascular dementia is caused by the build up and hardening of the arteries leading to reduced blood supply to the brain.

How many people have dementia?

Currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year. Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally. As the proportion of older people in the population is increasing in nearly every country, this number is expected to rise to 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050.

What are the risk factors of dementia?

Age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia, however, not all older people have dementia, it is not a normal part of ageing. Dementia does not exclusively affect older people, young onset symptoms of dementia account for up to 9% of cases before the age of 65. Additional risk factors include depression, social isolation, low educational attainment, cognitive inactivity, and air pollution.

Can we prevent dementia?

Unfortunately dementia is not preventable or able to be cured.

But there are things people can do to lessen their chance of developing intense symptoms. People can reduce cognitive decline by making lifestyle changes to prevent dementia by:

  • Being physically active
  • Not smoking
  • Avoiding harmful use of alcohol
  • Controlling their weight
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels

Individuals with dementia require support to help them to continue to live happy, healthy, and independent lives. We are passionate about helping our clients and ensuring they have access to all the support they need. If you think a loved one could benefit from our services call us on 1300 303 770, or learn more about what we offer on our website.

Some resources to learn more:

Dementia Australia. 2022. What is Dementia. Dementia Australia website.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. 2022. Vascular Dementia. Johns Hopkins Medicine website.

Mayo Clinic. 2022. Dementia. Mayo Clinic website.

National Health Service. N.d. Causes Alzheimer’s Disease. National Health Service website.

World Health Organization. 2021. Dementia. World Health Organization website.

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