Introduction to Dementia
Dementia is a group of symptoms associated with a decline in brain function.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a group of symptoms associated with a decline in brain function. The condition is particularly common in older people, with 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 thought to develop it at some point during their life. The condition affects both men and women, though more women are affected. Given that the average life expectancy in the UK is rising, we expect that more people are likely to experience the condition in the future, making it an important global health problem. If you are experiencing a decline in memory or cognition, especially if you are over 65 years of age, please see a neurologist or GP who will distinguish whether your symptoms are characteristic of dementia and help identify strategies to manage the symptoms and prevent worsening of the condition.
What causes Dementia?
Dementia is caused by damage to the brain, resulting in abnormal function. The exact mechanism of damage has not been totally elucidated, though a great deal of research has identified several potential causes. The best characterised pathology in the brains of those suffering from dementia is a build-up of certain proteins either within or around cells. It is thought that these abnormal protein aggregates are neurotoxic, meaning that they induce brain cell death.
There is great interest in identifying the cause of these aggregates. Since dementia often runs in families, it is likely that there is a genetic link. Several genes have indeed been identified that either increase or reduce your risk of developing dementia. Furthermore, the genetic disorder Down’s syndrome is strongly associated with the development of certain types of dementia. In addition to the genetic risk, several environmental risk factors such as alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity have been suggested to increase your chance of developing certain types of dementia.
What are the symptoms of Dementia?
Dementia is not a single disease. Instead, it is a syndrome; a group of symptoms that may result from several different diseases including Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. All of these diseases are characterised by an abnormal decline in brain function, though the exact nature of symptoms varies between diseases.
The most common symptom of dementia is memory loss, particularly that of recent events. In addition, it may become difficult to choose appropriate words and plan/organise activities. Furthermore, you may feel confused, especially in environments that you are unfamiliar with. Finally, changes in mood, including depression may be experienced.
How is Dementia treated?
Rare forms of dementia such as those caused by vitamin and thyroid deficiencies can be reversed by using supplements. However, degenerative dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies are incurable and typically get worse over time. However, there are treatments available that may prevent symptoms getting worse. Furthermore, lifestyle medications including cessation of smoking and reducing body mass index (BMI) can be helpful in some types of dementia. Psychological therapies are sometimes beneficial to improve symptoms and make living with the condition easier. Finally, support from friends, family or the community is an important aspect of managing the condition and improving quality of life for the person affected.
Though there is no current cure for degenerative dementia, several studies are currently looking for more effective treatments. Some of the avenues being explored include gene therapy, stem cell therapy and vaccinations. If you would like to participate in dementia research, please sign up to the NHS participation list by clicking here: https://www.joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk/