What is dementia?

According to the World Health Organisation, over 50 million people worldwide are affected by some form of dementia, with nearly 10 million new cases each year. With such high volumes of the world’s population suffering from this disease, it becomes more evident as each year passes that we should be making efforts to understand dementia and its different forms.

This article sets out to inform you of the different forms of dementia, their symptoms and stages. This, in turn, will help you better understand your loved one who may be suffering from, or showing signs of these diseases, and ultimately help them live a better quality of life.

Dementia is often thought to be one specific disease. However, it is, in fact, a blanket term used to describe a variety of diseases which cause a decline in mental ability to the point where the symptoms affect daily living. The NHS defines dementia as:

‘...a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain functioning.’

Have a read through our overview of some of the most common types of dementia experienced to help you get to grips with the disease.

Alzheimer's Disease:

What is it?

This is the most common form of dementia. It affects a person’s memory, thinking and behaviour. It is a progressive disease as the symptoms slowly worsen over time, where they eventually impact on daily living.

Who does it affect?

The disease mainly affects those over 65, and the risk increases with age. With that being said, Alzheimer's can affect younger people. According to the NHS, 1 in every 20 cases affects those between 40 and 65 as they show signs of the early stages.

What are the symptoms?

Early Stage

A person with the onset of Alzheimer’s can still live independently and carry out daily tasks as normal, but may have the feeling that they are forgetting small things more than usual.

One of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering new information as the disease normally starts to affect the learning part of the brain. During this early stage, memory loss may vary from day to day, but it is persistent and not just a once off.

The most common memory lapses to look out for are:

  • Problems retaining short term memory
  • Forgetting new names
  • Trouble finding the right word or name
  • Forgetting information as they are reading and having to reread sections
  • Difficulty planning and organising tasks
  • Misplacing objects and not remembering where they are with the inability to retrace their steps
  • Confusing times and places

Middle Stage

This is typically the longest stage of Alzheimer’s and can last for years. As your loved one reaches this stage of the disease, they may start to need more care and help carrying out daily tasks.

The key identifiers of the middle stage are:

  • Increased agitation as their sleep pattern is often interrupted; falling asleep frequently during the day or difficulty getting to sleep at night
  • Wandering and getting lost as they are confused as to where they are at times
  • Unsociability and acting withdrawn, and behaving inappropriately in social situations such as making others feel uncomfortable
  • Changes in their personality where they feel suspicious of others with increased paranoia and delusions
  • Confusion about what day it is, or time of year to the point where they need assistance dressing appropriately for the season
  • As well as difficulty retaining short-term memory, the main characteristic of middle stage Alzheimer's is the decline of long-term memory
  • In the early stages, your loved one will be more aware and frustrated by their memory loss. However, during the middle stage they become less aware of the decline
  • Less importance on personal hygiene as a direct result of the forgetfulness they are experiencing
  • Loss of appetite leading to a decrease in weight

Late Stage

The final stages of the disease mean individuals need considerable help carrying out daily tasks. They become increasingly unaware of their environment and find it almost impossible to maintain a conversation, except for some odd phrases and words.

Some of the most common features of this stage are:

  • Decreased cognitive skills and difficulty with movement
  • Loss of awareness of what’s happening around them
  • An increased susceptibility to infections and illnesses such as colds and pneumonia
  • Requires almost 24 hour care
  • Severe personality changes with increased irritability and loss of patience, and can often be verbally abusive to those around them
  • Increased wandering

Vascular Dementia:

What is it?

This is the second most common form of dementia and occurs from reduced blood flow to the brain, normally following a stroke, which deprive oxygen from brain cells. Like Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia is a progressive disease which gradually worsens over time.

There are two forms of vascular dementia. One where the symptoms appear very suddenly, after a large stroke; or one where symptoms develop slowly over time, similar to Alzheimer's, caused by a series of mini strokes known as subcortical vascular dementia. People can in fact suffer from both forms at the same time.

Who does it affect?

As vascular dementia is a result of decreased blood flow to the brain, those who are at risk of a stroke and heart disease also run the risk of developing this form of dementia. Suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and smoking all increase the risk too.

What are the symptoms?

Early Stage

Early signs of vascular dementia differs from Alzheimer's in that problems with memory aren’t seen as often as they are with Alzheimer's. The symptoms can often be mistaken for depression. The common early signs include:

  • Difficulty concentrating and following steps to complete a task
  • Slower thought process
  • Confusion
  • Trouble organizing and planning tasks
  • Changes in mood
  • Being unusually emotional
  • Feelings of agitation and restlessness

Middle and Later Stages

The symptoms worsen over time and sufferers may experience the same set of symptoms for a long period of time with a sudden change as they may have experienced another small stroke.

As the disease progresses, the symptoms become more like those of Alzheimer’s, with sufferers experiencing:

  • Memory loss
  • Further slowness of thought
  • Confusion
  • Problems communication and reasoning with others, often becoming aggressive
  • Disorientation and loss of awareness of surroundings
  • Increased irritability and agitation
  • Depression
  • Loss of balance and having difficulting walking
  • Incontinence

Lewy Body Dementia:

What is it?

This form of dementia is caused by abnormal deposits of a protein; called alpha-synuclein. These proteins cause a build up the sections of the brain which control behaviour, cognition and movement. Symptoms are often very similar to Alzheimer’s or Parkinson's, and so it’s often misdiagnosed.

The disease got its name from a scientist, Friederich H. Lewy, who discovered these abnormal proteins while researching Parkinson’s.

Who does it affect?

Although Lewy Body dementia may not be as widely known as Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association it accounts for 10-25% of cases, making it the third most common form of dementia. As research in the area is still ongoing, it is still not known as to why people develop the disease or who may be more susceptible. Although, according to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, there may be various factors at play including genetics and environmental factors, alongside ageing.

What are the symptoms?

Lewy Body dementia differs significantly from Alzheimer’s in that it doesn’t progress in the same way. The symptoms of Lewy Body dementia fluctuate and can have varying levels of intensity from day to day. That being said, each stage does have its own key features.

Early Stage

  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Problems with movement
  • Sleep disruptions, including acting out dreams while sleeping; known as REM sleep disorder
  • Incontinence
  • Some mild confusion, although nothing as severe as what’s seen in the early stages of Alzheimer’s

Middle Stage

During this stage, symptoms become more similar to those of Parkinson’s, with sufferers experiencing:

  • Difficulty moving with stiffness in the muscles
  • Falling
  • Problems with speech
  • Increased difficulty when swallowing
  • A stronger presence of paranoia and delusions
  • Tremors
  • Changes in alertness throughout the day or from one day to the next accompanied with confusion

Later Stage

Once your loved one reaches this stage of Lewy Body dementia, round the clock care is needed to assist them with daily tasks. Symptoms include:

  • Severe muscle stiffness
  • Almost incapable of speech, except for odd words and phrases
  • Vulnerability to illness and infections
  • Problems processing visual information
  • Hallucinations and delusions

Frontotemporal Dementia:

What is it?

This is the most uncommon form of dementia. The name ‘frontotemporal’ is derived from the fact that this dementia affects the front and sides of the brain. It’s also a progressive disease which worsens over time. It tends to affect behaviour and language.

Who does it affect?

One key difference between frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s is that diagnosis occurs much earlier in the former with most being diagnosed in their 40’s and early 60’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in approximately ⅓ of cases this form of dementia is inherited. At the moment, there are no other known risks for frontotemporal dementia other than a family history of the disease.

What are the symptoms?

Early Stage

The earlier symptoms of frontotemporal dementia differ from Alzheimer's in that problems with memory don’t begin to appear until the later stages. The main early symptoms to watch out for are:

  • Changes in personality, the sufferer appears to be selfish, impulsive and acts inappropriately
  • Unsociable and withdrawn
  • A tendency to overeat
  • Slow speech, putting words in the order and difficulty making the right sounds
  • Easily distracted and problems planning and organising
  • Mild memory problems may be present

Middle Stage

Symptoms during this stage stay relatively the same as those seen during the early stage, but may be more prominent or intense. Additional symptoms of this stage are:

  • Compulsive behaviour, such as over cleaning or collecting things
  • Binge eating often leading to increased weight
  • Forgetfulness and memory loss more often than not, first appear in this stage

Late Stage

The symptoms, again, remain largely the same as those which are seen in the other stages alongside

  • Profound memory loss
  • Language difficulties
  • Difficulty with balance

If you do notice your loved one showing signs of any of the above symptoms, make sure to contact your local health care provider to get it checked out. Although there is no cure for dementia, it’s always better to edge on the side of caution as the earlier you get a diagnosis, the sooner you can start helping your loved alleviate some of the symptoms and lead a more comfortable life.

Be there for an older loved one, from anywhere.