There are more than 413,106 Australians living with dementia, and over 200 people are diagnosed with the disease every day. It’s expected that this number will at least double by 2056 without a significant medical breakthrough.
Despite the prevalence of dementia in our community, there is still a mystery surrounding it and misunderstanding about what dementia is, how it is diagnosed and treated. Here, we answer some of the most commonly asked questions about dementia.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a collective term that describes a group of symptoms affecting the brain. These symptoms can affect the person’s thinking, behaviour and ability to perform everyday tasks.
What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for at least half of cases. It causes a gradual decline in cognitive abilities, often beginning with memory loss.
What are other forms of dementia?
- Vascular dementia is cognitive impairment caused by damage to the blood vessels in the brain. It can be caused by a single stroke, or by several strokes occurring over time.
- Lewy body disease is characterised by the presence of Lewy bodies in the brain. Lewy bodies are abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein that develop inside nerve cells. These abnormalities occur in specific areas of the brain, causing changes in movement, thinking and behaviour. People with Lewy body disease may experience large fluctuations in attention and thinking. They can go from almost normal performance to severe confusion within short periods. Visual hallucinations are also a common symptom.
- Frontotemporal dementia involves progressive damage to the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain. Symptoms often begin when people are in their 50s or 60s and sometimes earlier. There are two main presentations of frontotemporal dementia – frontal (involving behavioural symptoms and personality changes) and temporal (involving language impairments). However, the two often overlap.
It is also possible to experience more than one dementia condition. For example, Alzheimer’s disease can be active as well as a person having vascular changes in the brain.
What are the early signs of dementia?
The early signs of dementia can be very subtle, vague and may not be immediately obvious. Each person will be affected in their own way but some of the common symptoms may include:
- Struggling to remember things that happened recently, even though you can easily remember things from longer ago.
- Struggling to follow conversations, particularly in groups.
- Regularly forgetting the names of people or things.
- Struggling to follow a story on television or in a book, or understand magazine and newspaper articles.
- Regularly having trouble remembering the day or date.
- Regularly having trouble remembering where you put something, or where things are kept.
- Being unaware that you are repeating yourself or losing the thread of what you are saying in mid- sentence.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
- Struggling to do things you used to find easy.
- Feeling confused even in a familiar place.
- Having problems controlling your mood, or controlling your emotions.
Having trouble with memory does not mean you have dementia. Many health issues can cause problems with memory and thinking. When dementia-like symptoms are caused by treatable conditions — such as depression, drug interactions, thyroid problems, excess use of alcohol or certain vitamin deficiencies — they may be reversed.
How is dementia diagnosed?
Only a doctor can diagnose dementia so consulting a medical practitioner at an early state is critical.
A complete medical assessment may identify a treatable condition and ensure that it is treated correctly, or it might confirm the presence of dementia.
The process may include the following: medical history, physical examination, blood and urine tests, cognitive tests, brain imaging and psychiatric assessment.
Is there a cure for dementia?
There is no cure or treatment that slows or stops dementia but there are drugs that may temporarily improve symptoms. Please consult your GP for further information about the treatments available.
Can you reduce your dementia risk?
Despite what people may believe, dementia is not a normal part of the ageing process and can affect people of all ages.
There are lifestyle changes you can make that may reduce the risk of being diagnosed with dementia. These include:
- Keep active – regular physical exercise can improve brain function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
- Stop smoking – smoking is a risk factor for dementia.
- Eat a healthy diet – eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, reduce saturated fat intake and choose unsaturated fats instead, consider including foods rich in omega-3.
- Drink in moderation – excessive alcohol intake can damage your brain and contribute to the risk of dementia.
- Stretch your brain – improve your brain health by taking part in activities that make you think and learn, for example taking part in hobbies like sewing or learning a new skill such as dancing or a language.
- Stay social – stay connected with your community, family and friends, and take part in social activities.
Where to find out more about dementia?
Alzheimer’s Australia provides support to people living with dementia and their carers. They have a number of services available including:
National Dementia Helpline
The National Dementia Helpline is a free confidential phone and email information and support service. The Helpline is for anyone interested in dementia, whether that is someone who is concerned about their memory or that of a loved one or has been diagnosed.
It is open from 9.00am to 5.00pm Monday to Friday excluding public holidays. They can be contacted on 1800 100 500 via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or online.
Alzheimer’s Australia runs a counselling service that provides support, advice and practical assistance. Counselling is available for people living with dementia, carers, family and other significant people. Contact the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500 to enquire about the counselling services available in your area.
Alzheimer’s Australia WA provides an extensive information and resource library based at 9 Bedbrook Place, Shenton Park. The library resource centre is open 8.30am – 4.00pm, Monday to Friday. You can browse their online catalogue here - https://wa.fightdementia.org.au/wa/services/library
Amana Living’s McCusker Nurse Service provides free support for the carers of those living with dementia.
The McCusker Nurse is a dementia expert who can help carers and families understand the condition, and navigate the support options available to them at any stage in the illness.
The McCusker Nurse can:
- offer you advice, support and reassurance;
- provide accurate information on resources available to you; and
- guide you to the dementia services most likely to help you.
The service operates in specific areas in Perth’s north and south metropolitan regions. To find out more, contact:
McCusker Nurse - North of the River
9424 6396 or 0417 519 253
McCusker Nurse - South of the River
9424 6697 or 0437 110 928
Alzheimer’s Australia - https://www.fightdementia.org.au
Alzheimer’s Society - https://www.alzheimers.org.uk