A diagnosis of dementia can be devastating for the whole family. It can be a confusing and frustrating time.
Dementia itself is not a disease but a term used to describe the symptoms of a number of conditions that cause damage to the structure and chemistry of the brain.
As we age changes in memory are common, we may forget the names of people we recently met or where we put our car keys.
Memory loss associated with dementia is different. Dementia causes a progressive and irreversible loss of brain cells. This means that symptoms will get worse over time.
Many of the early symptoms of dementia can go unnoticed. These symptoms can appear years before an official diagnosis of dementia.
As dementia progresses, a person’s thinking, behaviour and ability to do everyday tasks is affected.
A variety of conditions can cause dementia. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Whilst most people have heard of Alzheimer’s disease, there are in fact many different types of dementia.
Common types of dementia include but are not limited to:
- Vascular dementia
- Dementia with Lewy Bodies
- Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
- Early- onset dementia
- Mixed dementia (a combination of Vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s)
Common early signs of dementia
Symptoms of dementia can be subtle at first and difficult to detect. Eventually as damage to the brain becomes more extensive, symptoms of dementia start to affect a person’s daily life. At this point, family usually notice something is not quite right and seek help from a GP.
In the early stages of dementia people can experience a range of common symptoms. However, an individual’s experience of dementia will be unique to that person.
Different types of dementia can also have a range of symptoms particular to that disease making a diagnosis complicated.
Common symptoms of dementia include:
- Memory loss – especially problems with short term memory. Forgetting recent events, messages, problems remembering names, dates or events and asking the same question repetitively. Becoming confused in unfamiliar environments.
- Difficulty with organising and planning tasks – A person can have poor concentration causing difficulty driving, paying bills, problems at work or following instructions.
- Problems finding the right words – A person may struggle to find the right word for a familiar object, get lost in conversation or problems following conversations with others.
- Changes in personality and mood – A normally outgoing person can isolate themselves from others or become withdrawn. A person may become suspicious, anxious or easily upset. A person with dementia may say hurtful or embarrassing things in public.
- Misplacing things – A person may not remember where they left items and accuse others of stealing. They may put things in unusual places, like the keys in the fridge.
- Poor Judgment – Giving away sums of money, not paying attention to personal grooming or dressing inappropriately, neglect of safety or inability to recognise danger.
- Depression, anxiety – Depression and anxiety are commonly experienced in early dementia. Problems with memory and concentration, withdrawal, tearfulness, problems sleeping should be investigated in older adults. Depression can also be mistaken for early dementia as symptoms can overlap.
People living with dementia gradually lose the ability to undertake normal everyday activities, communicate with others and make decisions.
How fast the disease progresses can be influenced by a number of factors such as underlying health conditions and the level of support available. For some people progression of dementia can be rapid. For others their abilities slowly deteriorate over a number of years.
In the late stages of dementia a person will become totally dependent on others and require full nursing care.
It’s important to encourage a loved one living with dementia to remain independent for as long as possible. People living with dementia can enjoy quality of life with the support of people around them. There are many services available to help support families caring for someone living with dementia.