What are dementia risks and early signs?

Research by the Alzheimer's society has found that nearly half of people diagnosed with dementia have delayed seeing their doctor about their memory by at least a year. And stark statistics suggest that by 2040, nearly 220,000 Britons a year will die from dementia - almost four times as many as today.

Nearly two in three fear dementia means their life is over - but in fact, early diagnosis could greatly improve your chance of living better for longer.

Who is affected by dementia?

About 850,000 people in the UK live with dementia - and of course many more family members are affected. The most common kind of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which causes about three in five cases of dementia. In Alzheimer's, the number of nerve fibres sending messages around the brain gradually falls. The brain shrinks and one of the chemicals (called acetylcholine) that transmits messages between nerves also drops off.

The second most common kind, vascular dementia, is caused by multiple small clots in the brain - like tiny strokes, each one has little effect on its own, but the damage adds up over time as blood supply is lost to the brain tissue.

What are the early dementia signs?

Early signs of dementia include:

  • Problems finding the right words
  • Forgetting events (particularly recent ones)
  • Getting confused in unfamiliar surroundings
  • Difficulty grasping new ideas
  • Problems with concentration
  • Changes in personality and
  • Low mood.

All of us struggle to remember sometimes, and occasionally getting upstairs and realising you've forgotten what you came for doesn't mean you're getting dementia. But repeated and ever-more-frequent lapses of memory could be a sign. People with dementia often hold on to old memories much better than recent ones - so they may remember every detail of their wedding day, but not what they had for breakfast.

Nearly two in three dementia sufferers and their carers feel there's a lack of understanding about dementia. Two in five people with dementia say they are treated differently because of their illness and the same number say they're sometimes not included in everyday life. One in four admits to hiding their diagnosis because they're scared of being discriminated against. But that is changing slowly, thanks in part to the great work done by the 'Dementia Friends' campaign, which aims to encourage all of us to think dementia and make allowances. With the right support, many people with dementia lead fulfilling lives for years - a diagnosis really doesn't mean your life is over.

Development in dementia care

The NHS has worked hard on improving the care of people with dementia, and their carers haven't been forgotten either. Anyone who cares for a dementia sufferer is entitled to a free carer's assessment every year. You know how the safety instructions on a plane remind you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others? The same principles apply here. We recognise that if you're struggling, it'll be harder for you to care for your loved one as well.

One of the big developments in dementia has been the launch of a series of medicines which can slow or sometimes even halt progression of symptoms for some sufferers. Specialist teams including dementia nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists (who deal with home adaptations) can help sufferers live safely and securely at home for as long as possible.

Dementia risks - the good news

There's good news on dementia risks, as well. Even though the likelihood of developing dementia increases with age, and we're getting older as a nation, the numbers aren't increasing as fast as expected. In fact, compared to predictions from 20 years ago, the risk of developing dementia is 25% lower than expected. The study that found this looked at Britons from Cambridgeshire, Nottingham and Newcastle, and compared them with people of the same age in Spain, Sweden and Holland. Overall, one in 15 people in the English group had dementia, compared to one in 12 two decades earlier. Interestingly, over the same period the number of people affected by dementia in Spain more than halved, down to one in 40 people - possibly related in part to their Mediterranean diet and lower rates of smoking.

There's no way to guarantee you won't be affected by dementia, but a healthy lifestyle will certainly stack the odds in your favour. Stopping smoking; eating a healthy diet low in saturated fat and with oily fish and plenty of fruit and vegetables; keeping to a healthy weight; exercising regularly; and keeping your mind active will all help.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.