What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a group of conditions that affect how well our brains work. Dementia can affect anyone, and as people get older the chances of developing dementia increase.

The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease – which around two-thirds of people with dementia have.

The symptoms each person experiences depends on the parts of the brain that are affected. However, the most common dementia symptoms include changes in memory, thinking, behaviour, personality and emotions. These changes affect a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks and interfere with their everyday lives.

Dementia is progressive, which means that for most people the changes gradually spread through the brain and lead to the symptoms getting worse. Dementia is different for everyone – what people experience, and how quickly they are affected is unique to them. What they can do, remember and understand may change from day to day.

The 10 warning signs

The early signs and symptoms of dementia can be subtle and hard to recognize.

Many conditions, such as stroke, depression and infections, as well as normal aging, can cause dementia-like symptoms. It’s important not to assume any changes are due to dementia.

It’s very important to see a GP if you have concerns that you or someone you know may have dementia. If the symptoms are caused by a treatable condition, they can be diagnosed and treated.

If the symptoms are caused by dementia, an early diagnosis means early access to support, information, and any appropriate medication will be available, and there will be time to plan for the future.

Getting a diagnosis

If you think you or someone you care about may have dementia, it is important to see a GP for an assessment as soon as possible.

The benefits of an early diagnosis include some peace of mind in knowing what is going on, the opportunity to find out more about the condition, access to services and support and the ability to plan for the future. For some people, medication which might delay the progression of cognitive problems is available.

The GP will do a complete medical assessment. They may decide the symptoms are a result of a treatable condition, or they may confirm dementia.

An assessment may include:

  • Discussing medical history
  • Talking to family/whānau (with appropriate permission)
  • Undergoing a physical examination
  • Laboratory tests, which may include a blood and urine tests
  • Cognitive testing, which assesses how the brain is working – in particular memory, language, attention span and problem solving
  • Brain imaging, which looks at the brain’s structure and is used to rule out other medical conditions or diagnose the particular type of dementia
  • Mental health assessment, which may identify treatable conditions such as depression, and to manage some symptoms experienced as part of the dementia.

Some hints for seeing the doctor

The GP should provide advice and support, listen to your opinions, explain things so you can understand them, answer your questions and make you feel comfortable and respected. If you think you’re not getting that from your GP, don’t hesitate to look for another that suits your needs.

Some useful hints:

  • Make the appointment for a time of the day where you or the person you are concerned about is at their best.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a longer appointment than normal if you feel you need it.
  • Make a list of questions before you go, and it is a really good idea to ask a family/whanãu member or friend to go to the appointment with you, rather than going alone.
  • Keep a folder about conversations you have with your GP. Ask your doctor to write things down if necessary.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself and ask questions.
  • If you don’t understand what is being said, ask to have it explained in a different way.

If you or your loved one does receive a diagnosis of dementia there is lots of support available. Find out more about what to think about after a diagnosis or get in touch with your local Alzheimers organisation for information and support.

Reduce the risk of developing dementia

As yet, no single factor has been identified as the cause of dementia, and there is no cure. But there are ways to reduce your risk of developing dementia by making a few simple lifestyle changes.

The World Alzheimer Report 2014, titled Dementia Risk Reduction: An analysis of protective and modifiable factors, released for World Alzheimer’s Month 2014, indicates that there are a number of simple lifestyle changes we can all make to reduce the risk of developing dementia in later life.

The general rule of thumb is that what is good for the heart is good for the brain. And it’s never too late to start.

Five small changes to make today:

1. Look after your heart

Certain lifestyle choices can affect the health of your heart. Adopting a healthy lifestyle can help to prevent high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, as not only do these increase the risk for heart attacks and strokes, they increase the chances of developing dementia later on in life. As well as being bad for your heart and lungs and putting you at risk of cancer and stroke, smoking has been linked to an increased risk of dementia. Giving up smoking can significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia. It is also recommended to limit alcohol consumption to two standard drinks on each drinking occasion.

2. Be physically active

Leading an active lifestyle can help control your blood pressure and weight, as well as reducing the risk of type two diabetes and some forms of cancer. Some evidence also suggests that being physically active can help to reduce the risk of dementia, and getting active is proven to make us feel good, and can be a great way of socializing. Thirty minutes of gentle exercise such as brisk walking, five days a week is all you need to improve your health. If you have any health conditions that limit your ability to exercise make sure you talk to your doctor first.

3. Follow a healthy diet

Our body and brain both rely on food for fuel. In order to keep it functioning properly we need to consume a healthy, balanced diet. While we need to do more studies into the benefits of specific foods or supplements, we do know that eating lots of fatty and processed foods which are high in saturated fat, sugar and/or salt is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, and is best avoided.  There is good evidence that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can reduce the risk of developing some forms of dementia. Remember, what is good for the heart is good for the brain.

4. Challenge your brain

By challenging the brain with new activities you can help build new brain cells and strengthen the connections between them. This may counter the harmful effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia pathologies. Activities that stretch your mind such as reading, crosswords and puzzles, and activities such as bridge, mahjong and chess are excellent. By challenging your brain you can learn some great new things such as learning a new language or taking up a new hobby or sport.

5. Enjoy social activities

Social engagement may also be beneficial to brain health because it stimulates our brain reserves, helping to reduce the risk of developing dementia and depression. Remaining socially engaged and an active part of the community is important for people with dementia, so try and make time for friends and family. You can even combine your social activities with physical and mental exercise through sport or other hobbies.