What is dementia?
Symptoms and treatment of dementia
Dementia is not a particular disease; it’s more like a set of symptoms of brain damage caused by one of various diseases – or by a series of small strokes.
Dementia now affects about 750,000 people in the UK, mostly over 65. It affects men and women equally and there is evidence that the diseases that cause dementia may, in some cases, be linked to an inherited genetic make-up.
Each person’s experience of dementia is different – and the sufferer may not actually experience any ‘suffering’. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less worrying for family and friends.
The main problem with dementia is that the symptoms will gradually get worse – while much research is being done, at this time treatment for dementia can only help with the symptoms or slow down the damage.
Symptoms of dementia
What are the causes of dementia?
Some of the causes of dementia include:
Alzheimer’s disease: The most common cause of dementia, this disease gradually alters the chemistry and structure of the brain, causing brain cells to die off. Short-term memory loss is usually the first symptom.
Vascular dementia: A restricted blood flow to the brain causes brain cells to die. This can happen suddenly following a stroke, or gradually through a series of lesser strokes.
Head injuries: People who have experienced a major concussion or repeated blows to the head or more likely to develop dementia later on.
Dementia with Lewy bodies: Lewy bodies are tiny abnormalities that develop inside the brain’s nerve cells, leading to degeneration of brain tissue. Symptoms include disorientation, hallucinations, and difficulties with reasoning, planning and problem solving and to a lesser extent, remembering things.
Fronto-temporal dementia (including Pick’s disease): This form of dementia is usually focused in the front part of the brain and, at first, affects personality and behaviour.
Rarer causes of dementia include progressive supranuclear palsy, Korsakoff’s syndrome, Binswanger’s disease, HIV/AIDS and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease may also lead to dementia as they develop.
Mild cognitive impairment (or MCI)
Mild memory problems may not be enough to warrant a diagnosis of dementia and may fall under this lesser diagnosis. However, people with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later on.
Do I have dementia?
Forgetfulness isn’t enough for a diagnosis – memory loss is a natural effect of ageing and can also be caused by depression or stress. Because of this, a proper diagnosis is essential, either by a GP or a specialist like a geriatrician, neurologist or psychiatrist. Testing will gauge your basic thinking and memory skills and a brain scan might be required.
Can dementia be prevented?
There’s no indisputable evidence, but it seems that a healthy diet and lifestyle can help protect against dementia. Fatty foods, smoking and drinking heavily are not advised, while keeping the brain active through reading, games, puzzles and social interaction may all help. Regular exercise may also help prevent dementia.
Can dementia be cured?
Research is ongoing and while no cure has yet been found, there are now drugs that can temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms of some forms of dementia. A combination of psychotherapy, physiotherapy and occupational therapy will also help the individual cope better with their disorder.
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