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Dementia demystified: what is it?

We’ve all heard of dementia, but not everyone understands what causes it, what we can do to treat it, and if there’s any way of avoiding it. 

What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for a number of conditions that affect the brain. There are over 200 subtypes that fit under this umbrella but the most common include Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, symptoms include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, as well as disorientation and a decline in skills such as judging distances. 

By 2021 it is estimated that over 1 million people will be living with dementia in the UK.

What causes dementia?

Your brain is made up of nerve cells, known as neurones, that communicate by sending messages. Dementia causes damage to these cells, so messages can’t be sent to and from the brain effectively – preventing your body from functioning normally.

Conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or a series of strokes can cause brain damage that leads to dementia. Around one in 14 people over the age of 65 will develop dementia at some stage – the likelihood increases with age.

What are the symptoms of dementia?

Each person will experience specific symptoms relating to dementia according to the part of the brain that is damaged.

Memory problems – ranging from misplacing items more regularly, struggling to remember names or familiar places, through to having trouble retaining brand new information. In the early stages this may just come across as attention or concentration problems.

Cognitive ability – such as processing information. People with dementia have been known to struggle with times and places which may include difficulty shopping when choosing items and paying.

Communication – people may find reading and writing to be more difficult as well more common instances of them repeating themselves. Some sufferers may lose interest in social situations and may be less likely to take part in activities they used to enjoy leading to a loss in self-confidence.

Treating dementia

Currently, there is no known cure for dementia. However, there are medicines and treatments available that can help with managing the symptoms of dementia.


Most of the medicines available are used to treat Alzheimer’s disease as this is the most common form of dementia affecting 62% of those diagnosed. The NHS states the main medications are, Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine.

Person-centred care

Person-centred care is great way of preventing and managing behavioural or psychological symptoms. This involves tailoring a person’s care to their interests, abilities and personality ensuring that people who suffer with dementia can take part in the things they enjoy.

Alternative therapies

These work by treating or managing conditions related to the condition. For sufferers of dementia, this could include sleep problems or behavioural changes. Examples of alternative therapies include:

  • Aromatherapy/massages

  • Bright light therapy

  • Transcutaneous nerve stimulation

Risk factors for dementia

As mentioned, the biggest risk factor for dementia is age.

According to Alzheimers Research UK about 2 in 100 people aged 65-69 have dementia but this figure rise to 19 in 100 for those aged 85-89.

As with most illnesses and diseases, your age, genes and lifestyle all affect your likelihood of developing dementia. However, certain people from BAME backgrounds (Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic) could be more likely to develop symptoms of dementia than others as they are at a higher risk of developing conditions such as diabetes.

How to offer support with someone living with dementia

How to avoid dementia

According to Dr Louise Walker from Alzheimer’s Society: “There is no one thing that we can do to definitely avoid dementia. The evidence so far shows that the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia are to take plenty of exercise, eat a healthy balanced diet and stop smoking.

“There is also some evidence that keeping your mind active may help to reduce your risk. Doing puzzles and crosswords, reading and trying out arts and crafts activities are all good ways to keep your mind busy, as well as getting out and about with friends and family.

“However,” she adds: “While it has been suggested that these could help to keep your brain healthy, currently there is no evidence that these activities will prevent or delay the onset of dementia.”

Most of the research around this has been observational, where people have reported to researchers how often they do puzzles, such as crosswords and Sudoku.

Some studies have found that those people who often do these brain-stimulating activities seem to have better brain health. But this is not enough to draw a line linking puzzles to better brain health as there may be many other factors at play, such as eating a healthier diet or getting regular exercise.

As dementia is such a common condition (it is estimated that over 900,000 people are living with dementia in 2019), it is likely you will know someone who is suffering from the disease.

However, inherited dementia is rare with the genes we inherit from our parents only playing a relatively small effect on our chances of developing dementia.

5 steps to reduce the risk of dementia

The Alzheimer’s Society has created a useful factsheet on dementia, which explains that while it is not always known why someone has developed dementia, evidence shows that having high blood pressure, smoking and a lack of exercise all increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

It is possibly because these things lead to a narrowing of the arteries, potentially reducing the amount of oxygen and essential nutrients reaching the brain.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the following (particularly in middle age) are all linked to a reduced risk of dementia:

  • Taking regular physical exercise (for example cycling, brisk walking)

  • Not smoking

  • Eating a balanced diet – one that is low in saturated fat and without too much salt, dairy or meat, and includes plenty of fish and fresh fruit and vegetables

  • Keeping blood pressure in check

  • If you have diabetes, making sure you manage your condition well. Of course, these healthy lifestyle choices will also reduce the risk of other serious conditions such as stroke, heart disease and cancer


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