Introduction to Dementia

Memory problems

Memory problems are common, however, they can be an early sign of a medical condition such as dementia.

Many people notice that their memory becomes less reliable as they get older, and tiredness, stress, anxiety, depression, some physical illnesses and the side effects of medications may also be factors.

You should seek help if your memory is not as good as it used to be, especially if:

  • You struggle to remember recent events, although you can easily recall things that happened in the past
  • You forget the names of friends or everyday objects
  • You lose the thread of what you are saying
  • You feel confused even when you are in a familiar environment.

Are you starting to feel anxious or depressed about your memory loss, or are other people starting to comment on it?

If you are worried about your memory, go and see your family doctor, who will address your concerns and may arrange for further investigation.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not a single illness but a group of symptoms caused by damage to the brain. The symptoms include loss of memory, mood changes and confusion.

Dementia is caused by a number of diseases of the brain. The main types of dementia are:

Alzheimer’s disease: small clumps of protein, known as plaques, begin to develop around brain cells. This disrupts the normal workings of the brain.

Vascular dementia: problems with blood circulation result in parts of the brain not receiving enough blood and oxygen.

Dementia with Lewy bodies: abnormal structures, known as Lewy bodies, develop inside the brain.

Fronto-temporal dementia: the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain begin to shrink. Unlike other types of dementia, fronto-temporal dementia develops most often in people under the age of 65.

Some people have mixed dementia – more than one of the four types.

It is important that these conditions are identified as early as possible, yet less than half of people who have dementia have been diagnosed.

Dementia mainly affects people who are older, and the numbers of people with dementia is forecast to grow as people live longer, but younger people can sometimes have dementia - this is referred to as early onset dementia.

Who can get dementia?

Anyone can develop dementia – it is not restricted to sex, age, gender, ethnicity or background.

However, some groups are statistically more likely to develop it. For example, women are more likely to develop it than men.

People with learning disabilities may carry a higher genetic risk of developing it. Also, people from black and minority ethnic populations have higher rates of early onset dementia than other groups.

How common is dementia?

In England, 800,000 people currently live with dementia. The older the age, the more common it is.

Around one-in-14 people aged 65 or over has a form of dementia, and one-in-six people aged 80 or over.

So the great majority of people with dementia are morethan 75 years old, but it does occur among younger people.

What affects the development of dementia?

Anyone can develop dementia, but some factors appear to ontribute to whether we develop the disease:

Age: you are more likely to develop dementia when you get older, especially if you have high blood pressure or have a higher risk of other genetic diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.

Genetics: genetics are known to play play some role in the development of dementia, but the specific effects vary considerably.

Medical history: having current conditions or having experienced certain conditions in the past may make us more likely to develop dementia – such as multiple sclerosis, Down’s syndrome, diabetes, HIV and metabolic syndrome.

General lifestyle: a poor diet, a lack of exercise and excessive alcohol or drug consumption can all increase the chances of developing the disease.

People with Parkinson’s disease have a higher-than-average risk of developing dementia, although most people are unaffected.

Further information

The Alzheimer’s Society national dementia helpline has trained advisers ready to discuss your concerns from 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday and 10am to 4pm at the weekend.

T: 0800 222 11 22

The Open Dementia e-learning programme is for anyone who comes into contact with someone with dementia and provides an introduction to the disease and living with dementia.

There are Alzheimer’s Society factsheets on a wide range of topics related to information about dementia.