Frequently asked questions about dementia

Understanding dementia and the different types can be difficult, so we’ve put together a helpful list of questions and answers by way of a quick introduction to dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term for many conditions and illnesses in which cognitive decline is the key feature.

Dementia is not a specific illness or any single disease process; it is a term used to describe a collection of various diseases or conditions which produce similar signs and symptoms and therefore are referred to collectively as dementia.

Currently there is no cure for dementia. However, there is a lot of research going on into effective treatments for the delay, cure and even prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

There are a number of drugs currently licensed to alleviate some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s and in turn give the person an improved quality of life for a longer period of time. However these drugs do not stop or cure the disease process.

Old age is the greatest risk factor associated with developing dementia. However, over 200 different types of conditions have been identified in which dementia is the key symptom but the underlying causes are different for different types of dementia.

Dementia can be difficult to diagnose and a GP may first need to rule out other causes before referring to a specialist healthcare professional for scans and memory tests which may confirm the diagnosis.

Quite a few other diagnoses e.g. a UTI infection, can include symptoms which present very similarly to dementia but which can be readily treated. It’s therefore important to see your GP in order to get appropriate treatment, if you suspect some cognitive impairment.

There are not any proven methods to prevent dementia. However, there are ways to help reduce the risk of getting dementia. This includes maintaining a healthy lifestyle, keeping your brain stimulated and maintaining regular social interactions with friends and family.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, which causes individuals to feel confused, experience changes in mood and difficulty with speaking and walking.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of dementia related conditions.

Dementia can be difficult to diagnose, particularly in the early stages and can be mistaken for other conditions, such as an UTI infection, depression, delirium and anxiety.

This is because there are a wide range of signs and symptoms of the different types of dementia.

A GP may first need to rule out other causes before referring to a specialist healthcare professional for scans and memory tests, which may confirm the diagnosis.

An estimated 944,000 people were living with dementia in the UK in 2022 (according to the Dementia Statistics Hub and this figure is estimated to rise to over one million by 2030.

These increases are happening as people are living longer. The risk of developing dementia increases with age, but dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing.

Dementia is caused by brain cell damage and the different forms of dementia affects various parts of the brain.

The brain cell damage prevents cells from communicating, which impacts thinking, emotions and behaviour.

The most common types are:

It is also possible for a person to live with two types of dementia together, usually Alzheimer’s disease and Vascular Dementia.

This is called Mixed Dementia and approximately one in ten people who live with dementia are diagnosed with having more than one type.

Dementia is progressive which means that the symptoms will gradually get worse and the person will become more and more reliant on assistance. Depending on the type of dementia will depend on how the dementia progresses.

Most people with dementia are unaware of their condition. It is possible in the very early stages that the individual is aware that something isn’t right or that they are losing their memory for certain things.

Most types of dementia isn’t hereditary, but there are rare forms of dementia where a small percentage of cases have a genetic link.

Dementia is a condition that affects all ages though the majority of people affected are over 65 years of age. Old age is the greatest risk factor associated with developing dementia.

However, younger people can also develop dementia: around 40,000 people under the age of 65 have dementia in the UK.

Other associated risk factors include hearing loss, smoking, social isolation, head injury, poor diet, high blood pressure and depression. But dementia is not an inevitable consequence of ageing – even in people over the age of 85, only approximately 25% will have some form of dementia.

Signs and symptoms:

Dementia is an umbrella term for many conditions and illness in which cognitive decline and disease is the key feature.

As the various forms of dementia affects different areas of the brain, the symptoms differ.

Take a look at our Factsheets on each type of dementia to find out about how each type of dementia impacts the individual.

As we age, it is common to forget things from time-to-time. However, dementia is when a person experiences difficulty with their memory, finding the right words, orientation, understanding the meaning of words, recognising objects and carrying out practical tasks or making considered judgements.

As there are many types of dementia, the symptoms can differ. However there are some common symptoms that may appear in the early stages of dementia. These are:

  • Memory loss
  • Decline in communication skills
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty with completing daily tasks

Symptoms differ for each type of dementia. However, common symptoms in the early stages of dementia includes:

  • Memory loss
  • Decline in communication skills
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulty with completing daily tasks

Some forms of dementia may be caused by drinking too much alcohol. In Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome the damage to the brain is caused in a very specific way.

Alcohol prevents the body from getting enough thiamine (vitamin B1), which is vital for brain cells to work properly. This lack of vitamin B1 can have severe and long-lasting effects on the brain.

Visual hallucinations most commonly occurs for people living with dementia with Lewy bodies.

Hallucinations are more frequent in the early stages of dementia. This can happen daily and be extremely real to the person having the hallucination.

A person’s communications skills can be impacted with any type of dementia. However, as frontotemporal dementia affects the area of the brain that controls language and behaviour, it is more common for people to have problems with their speech. You can learn more about frontotemporal dementia in our advice hub.

As dementia is a progressive condition that weakens the immune system, it can eventually lead to someone passing away. Often a person living with dementia will pass away from another condition or illness, such as cardiovascular problems or infections.

There are many reasons why a person with dementia may lose their appetite. Some reasons include the person having problems chewing and swallowing food, struggling to communicate when they are hungry and being in pain.

Typical symptoms of dementia with Lewy bodies include:

  • Problems with attention and alertness are very common. Someone with DLB may stare into space for a long time or have periods when their speech is disorganised
  • People may also have difficulties judging distances and seeing objects in three dimensions • Difficulties with planning, organising and decision-making
  • Visual hallucinations also occur frequently in people with DLB, often in the early stages of the condition. They can happen daily
  • Auditory hallucinations – can happen but are less common
  • Movement difficulties including slow and stiff movements with blank facial expression, sometimes with stooped posture, increasing the risk of falls
  • Sleep disturbance, falling asleep in the daytime and having nightmares

To find out more information, you can view our dementia with Lewy body factsheet here.

As well as memory difficulties, people with Alzheimer’s are also likely to have – or go on to develop – other problems. These include problems with thinking, reasoning, language or perception such as:

  • Speech – they may repeat themselves or struggle to follow a conversation • Seeing things in three dimensions and judging distances (visuospatial skills)
  • Concentrating, planning or organising – they may struggle with making decisions, solving problems or carrying out a sequence of tasks (such as dressing)
  • Orientation – they may become confused or lose track of the day or date
  • Navigation – finding their way may become more difficult.

To find out more information, you can view our Alzheimer’s disease factsheet here.

The most common cognitive symptoms in the early stages of Vascular Dementia are:

  • Problems with planning or organising, making decisions or solving problems
  • Difficulties following a series of steps (e.g. cooking a meal)
  • Slower speed of thought
  • Problems concentrating, including short periods of sudden confusion
  • Memory – problems recalling recent events (often mild)
  • Language – (e.g. speech may become less fluent)
  • Visuospatial skills – problems perceiving objects in three dimensions.

To find out more information, you can view our vascular dementia factsheet here.

There are two broad types of frontotemporal dementia (FTD):

  • Behavioural variant FTD – where damage to the frontal lobes of the brain mainly causes problems with behaviour and personality.
  • Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) occurs when damage to the temporal lobes – on either side of the head nearest the ears – causes language problems.

To find out more information, you can view our frontotemporal dementia factsheet here.

The symptoms of Wernick’s encephalopathy can be difficult to identify – particuarly if a person is still intoxicated with alchohol. The symptoms can sometimes be mistaken for alcohol withdrawal. Symptoms include:

  • Disorientation, confusion of mild memory loss
  • Difficulty controlling eye movements
  • Poor balance, being unsteady and walking with their legs apart
  • Being undernourished

To find out more information, you can view our alcohol related dementia factsheet here.

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