Dementia

Dementia isn’t just about memory loss. It can affect how you think, feel, speak and behave.

*Last updated: 9 July 2021

Dementia is a term used to describe a range of conditions affecting the brain. It’s caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or by a series of strokes.

Dementia mainly affects people over 65, and the likelihood of developing it increases with age.

What are the symptoms of dementia?

Dementia affects everyone differently and usually gets worse over time. Common symptoms include:

  • memory loss
  • difficulty with concentrating, planning or organising
  • language difficulties, such as problems finding the right word or following a conversation
  • visual perception problems, such as judging distances or seeing objects in three dimensions
  • orientation problems, such as losing track of the day or date or getting lost in familiar places.

People with dementia may have mood changes, becoming irritable, tearful, anxious, depressed or agitated, for example. In the later stages, people with dementia may experience physical symptoms such as muscle weakness, weight loss, and changes in appetite and sleeping habits.

Some of these symptoms have other causes, such as stress, depression, dehydration or even a urinary tract infection. Speak to your doctor so you can get the right treatment.

Treatment for dementia

While there isn’t a cure for dementia, there are treatments that can help people live well with dementia. These include talking therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), cognitive stimulation therapy to keep someone’s mind active, and medication that may help with the symptoms of dementia or stop them progressing for a while. Alternative therapies such as music therapy, aromatherapy and reminiscence work can also help. The Alzheimer’s Society has more information about treatments.

Ageing is the biggest risk factor for dementia and, of course, we can’t change that. But we can reduce our risk in other ways, such as:

  • having a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, not drinking too much alcohol and having a healthy diet
  • staying mentally active by reading, doing puzzles or learning something new, for example
  • staying socially active by seeing friends or volunteering, for example.

Dementia and depression

Depression and dementia share many of the same symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, not wanting to socialise and having no motivation. You may worry you have dementia when actually you have depression.

There are some key differences between dementia and depression.

  • Depression develops much quicker than dementia: over weeks or months.
  • People with dementia may have problems with language or with knowing where they are or what time it is. This is rare with depression.
  • Someone with depression may not recall something, but will remember it when prompted. Someone with dementia is unlikely to remember.

Speak to your GP about your symptoms so they can diagnose you and help you find the right treatment and support.

Supporting someone with dementia who has mental health problems

It’s common for people with dementia to experience depression, anxiety or apathy (having no motivation to do things they usually found meaningful). Alzheimer’s UK has information about how these problems might affect someone with dementia, and ways to support them and get them the right support and treatment.

Improving the mental health of someone with dementia can improve their overall quality of life, for example by helping them engage with friends and relatives, improving their appetite and sleep quality, and boosting their motivation.