Dementia is an umbrella term for a large number of presentations that can affect thinking and memory. The most common form is Alzheimer’s Disease, which accounts for between 50 and 70 percent of dementias. The second most common form, resulting from small strokes, is commonly called Vascular Dementia (Multi-Infarct Dementia). It is now believed that Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia occur together, in up to 30 per cent of individuals. There are other rarer types.
The leading risk factor is increasing age. About 10 per cent of people over 65 have some dementia, half with early or mild dementia and half with moderate or severe dementia, with the numbers rising with increasing age.
There are specific risk factors for each type.
Factors which increase risk of Alzheimer’s Disease include a family history of the disorder, a history of head injuries or strokes, and having a history of depression, particularly if the first episode of the depression occurred later in life.
Factors increasing the risk of Vascular Dementia include a family history of strokes and vascular disease, a personal history of hypertension (high blood pressure), strokes or vascular disease, and risk factors associated with heart disease such as cigarette smoking and obesity.
Symptoms of dementia
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease usually appear slowly, increasing in severity over time. At first, the only symptom may be mild forgetfulness. People may have trouble remembering recent events or the names of familiar people or things. They may not be able to solve simple math problems. A the disease progresses, symptoms may become serious enough to cause persons with the disease or their family members to seek medical help.
People in the middle stage may forget how to perform simple tasks, such as brushing their teeth or making a cup of tea. Their thinking becomes muddled and problems arise with speaking, understanding, reading or writing.
Later, Alzheimer’s sufferers may become anxious or aggressive, or wander away from home. About a quarter experience hallucinations or delusions but usually only for a short period.
Symptoms of Vascular Dementia include confusion, problems with recent memory, wandering or getting lost in familiar places, loss of bladder or bowel control, emotional problems such as laughing or crying inappropriately, difficulty following instructions, and problems handling money. Usually the damage is so slight that the change is noticeable only as a series of small steps. However, over time, as more small vessels are blocked, there is a gradual mental decline.
These changes significantly affect a person’s quality of life, changing their memory, thinking, communication and their ability to perform everyday tasks.
The early signs and symptoms may vary, and each type of dementia can have particular characteristics. However, dementia is usually characterised by loss of memory, gradual loss of skills required to cope with the activities of daily living and impaired communication and social skills.
There is currently no cure for dementia but we can keep our brains healthy and reduce the risk. Next week I will provide some tips to keeping our brains healthy. Meanwhile the Alzheimer National Helpline offers information and support to anyone affected by dementia at 1800 341 341.
Watch out for my book in January - Becoming Your Real Self: A practical toolkit for managing life’s challenges – Penguin Ireland