What is dementia?

Dementia is a general term which describes a wide range of symptoms associated with deterioration of memory and other thinking skills, which eventually reduce a person’s ability to perform daily activities. Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition, meaning that the symptoms slowly get worse over time because of a progressive damage of the nerve cells in the brain.

Early symptoms of dementia usually include memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language and changes in personality.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. However, other dementia also exists: the main other types are dementia with Lewy bodies, vascular dementia, and fronto-temporal dementia.

The World Health Organization estimates that they are currently around 55 million people living with dementia worldwide, and that this number will reach 78 million in 2030.

Even if dementia mostly affects persons over 65 years old, it is not a natural part of ageing! Dementia is caused by nerve cells damages in the brain.

reMIND Information & Awareness Campaign aims to diffuse knowledge about dementia to our communities, to prepare them to become more inclusive and solidarity with people with dementia and their caregivers.

Dementia’s symptoms

What are the main symptoms of dementia? They vary among individuals, especially in the first stages. Nevertheless, common signs emerge:

Memory Loss: Struggling to remember recent events or details is the most common early sign of dementia. This memory loss can involve forgetting names, occurrences, or conversations.

Language and Communication Issues: Difficulty finding words, following conversations, and expressing thoughts may arise. It can also include substitutions of unusual words, making conversations hard to understand.

Difficulty in performing familiar tasks: Familiar tasks become complicated to perform. Everyday activities like dressing or cooking may be forgotten or performed incorrectly.

Difficulty understanding images and spatial relationships: A person with dementia can have a distorted perception may lead to challenges in judging distances, recognizing object edges, and misinterpreting patterns or reflections.

Disorientation in time and place: Losing track of time or place, not recognizing where one is, or being unsure about the time and date can occur.

Difficulty in planning and organising: People living with dementia may experience difficulties to solve problems, take decisions, and following simple steps.

Decreased judgement: loss of judgement capacity is common in dementia. A person can have difficulty making choices or take appropriate decisions (for example, wearing several layers of clothing in a warm day)

Mood and Behavior Changes: Sudden emotional shifts, anxiety, irritability, sadness, and loss of interest in activities can manifest. If you observe these symptoms in yourself or others, consult a doctor for guidance and support! Early detection can help proposing a better care for persons living with dementia.

Types of dementia

Dementia comes in several main types, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common. Each type presents unique early symptoms, affecting individuals differently. Some people even experience mixed dementia, showing signs of multiple types. All dementias are characterized by the alteration of cognitive functions and behaviour, producing loss of autonomy. However, depending on the cause and the affected brain areas, some symptoms will predominate and the evolution will be different.

Alzheimer’s Disease: This is the most common form of dementia, which affects between 60% and 80% of people with dementia. It damages brain cells and nerves, interrupting the transmission of messages within the brain. This disruption affects in particular the transmitters which are responsible of memory storage. The early symptoms often include memory, thinking, language, or perception issues. Alzheimer’s disease tends to get worse over time, leading to a total loss of autonomy.

Vascular Dementia: This is the second in prevalence. It’s caused by problems in the supply of blood to the brain, commonly due to strokes or ‘mini strokes’. The symptoms of vascular dementia are often similar to Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory problems, disorientation and difficulty with communication, difficulties in planning and in making decisions.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB): it leads to focus problems, delusions, movement and sleep issues. People with DLB can have trouble swallowing, be prone to fall or have temblors. DLB is closely related to Parkinson’s disease. Memory is often less affected than with other types of dementia.

Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD): Less common, FTD can mostly alter personality, mood and behaviour and emotions. Frontotemporal dementia can be difficult to diagnose. It’s sometimes confused with depression, stress, anxiety, psychosis or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Frontotemporal dementia can cause inappropriate social behaviour and a lack of inhibitions.

Stages of dementia

Dementia comes in different forms and gets worse over time. At the beginning, signs might not be obvious, but they become stronger over the years. These signs include problems with memory, thinking, talking, and emotions.

You can think of dementia in three stages: early, middle, and late. These stages show how the signs affect a person. However, it is not easy to figure out exactly which stage a person with Alzheimer’s is in because the stages overlap. These stages can still help find the right solutions and support for the person’s current needs.

Early Stage

The first signs are often not very strong and can be hard to notice. In the early stage, many people can still do things on their own but might need some help with daily tasks. It’s important to focus on what the person can still do and not take over everything. In the early stage, common signs include:

  • Memory problems
  • Trouble planning and thinking
  • Problems with talking and understanding
  • Getting lost or confused
  • Seeing things differently
  • Changes in feelings

Middle Stage

As dementia moves to the middle stage, signs become more obvious. The person will need additional help with everyday life and daily tasks. Reminders might be often needed as well as support with things like dressing or cooking. This stage can last a long time, about two to four years, and during this time, signs can get stronger in these ways:

  • Problems from the early stage become clearer. It might be tough to recognize family or find the right words.
  • Other changes can happen too: being restless, shouting, doing the same action again and again, or following someone around.

Late Stage

In the later stage, dementia has a central impact on a person’s life. The person may need help all the time with eating, washing, and getting dressed. In this stage, signs are very similar no matter what kind of dementia someone has. Most common signs are:

  • Memory problems get worse. The person might not recognize loved ones or even themselves in a mirror.
  • Talking becomes hard, and they might only use a few words or none at all.
  • Changes in mood, emotions and perception are frequent. The person may experience apathy and depression, as well as delusions and hallucinations.
  • Sometimes, aggression can happen because the person might feel scared or confused.
  • Restlessness is common too. The person might seem like they’re looking for something or someone, even if they’re not sure what it is.