Alzheimer's: what is dementia?

Friday, November 21, 2003
What is dementia?

Dementia is the term used to describe the symptoms of a large group of illnesses which cause a progressive decline in a person’s mental functioning.

It is a broad term which describes a loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and normal emotional reactions.

Who gets dementia?

Most people with dementia are older, but it is important to remember that most older people do not get dementia. It is not a normal part of ageing. Dementia can happen to anybody, but it is more common after the age of 65 years. People in their 40s and 50s can also have dementia.

What causes dementia?

There are different forms of dementia and each has its own causes. Some of the most common forms of dementia are:

Alzheimer’s Disease
  •  The most common form of dementia
  •  Accounts for between 50 percent and 70 percent of all cases
  •  A progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain
  •  Early phase symptoms can be subtle such as:
    •  Memory loss
    •  Vagueness
    •  Taking longer to do routine tasks
    •  Losing the point of a conversation
    •  As the disease progresses, the changes will become moredramatic until, in the last stages, the person cannot care for themselves.

    Vascular Dementia
    •  Previously known as multiinfarct dementia
    •  Second most common cause of dementia
    •  The term is associated with problems in the circulation of blood to the brain causing a deterioration of mental abilities as a result of multiple strokes, or infarcts, in the brain.
    •  A stroke refers to the death of a piece of brain tissue supplied by a blood vessel or blood vessels where its blood supply is blocked or interrupted.
    •  These strokes may cause damage to specific areas of the brain responsible for speech or language as well as producing generalised symptoms of dementia.
    •  Therefore Vascular dementia may appear similar to Alzheimer's disease.
    •  A mixture of Alzheimer’s disease and Vascular dementia is a common cause of dementia, and it can sometimes be difficult to separate the two.

    Parkinson’s Disease

    Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system, characterised by:
    •  Tremors
    •  Stiffness in limbs and joints
    •  Speech impediments
    •  Difficulty in initiating physical movements.

    Late in the course of the disease, some people may develop dementia. Drugs may improve the physical symptoms, but can have side effects which may include hallucinations, delusions and temporary worsening of confusion and abnormal movements.

    Is it dementia?

    There are a number of conditions which give symptoms similar to those of dementia. By treating these conditions the symptoms will often disappear.

    These include:
    •  Some vitamin and hormone deficiencies
    •  Depression
    •  Medication clashes or overmedication
    •  Infections
    •  Brain tumour

    It is essential that a medical diagnosis is obtained at an early stage when symptoms first appear to ensure that a person who has a treatable condition is diagnosed and treated correctly.

    Can dementia be inherited?
    This will depend on the cause of the dementia, so it is important to have a firm medical diagnosis. If there are concerns about the risk of inheriting dementia, discuss it with a doctor, or contact Alzheimer's Australia and speak to a counsellor.

    What are the early signs of dementia?
    The early signs of dementia are very subtle and vague and may not be immediately obvious.

    Common symptoms:
    •  Progressive and frequent memory loss
    •  Confusion
    •  Personality change
    •  Apathy and withdrawal
    •  Loss of ability to do everyday tasks

    What can be done to help?
    At present there is no prevention or cure for most forms of dementia. However, some medications and alternative treatments have been found to reduce some symptoms.

    Community support is available for the person with dementia, their families and carers and can make a positive difference to managing dementia.

    This information is provided by Alzheimer's Australia.

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