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Dementia: what is it and how to detect the early signs

03 September 2018

Do you know someone who is living with dementia? Ever wondered what it’s like? Want to help better support them?

An adult daughter is sat with her senior mother. They are chatting to one another and smiling.

The start of September marks the beginning of Dementia Awareness Month, a campaign that aims to encourage more Australians to understand what it’s like to live with dementia and how we can support those who are living with the condition.

We have asked our very own aged care nurse practitioner, Stuart Jillings, to help answer some frequently asked questions.

What is dementia?

Dementia is not one specific disease. Instead, dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain.

Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks. Dementia affects a person’s brain function enough to interfere with their daily life.

There are many forms of dementia and each person experiences the condition differently.

Dementia: what is it and how to detect the early signs

Who can get dementia?

Despite popular belief, dementia is not a normal part of ageing. Most people who get dementia are older, but not all older people get dementia and some people may be diagnosed when they’re young.

People as young as 40 and 50 can get dementia, although it is more common after the age of 65. It is important to remember that dementia can happen to anybody.

What causes dementia?

There is still a lot to learn about what causes dementia, but we do know there are more than 100 diseases that may cause the condition. The most common forms of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Lewy body disease. You can find out more here.

Can you prevent dementia?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia, but research does show living a brain-healthy life may reduce the risk of developing the condition. This means looking after your heart; being physically active; learning new skills or sports to mentally challenge your brain; eating healthily and socialising. The earlier you adopt healthy lifestyles, the better.

How do you know if it is dementia?

The early signs of dementia can be very subtle and hard to detect. They can also mirror the symptoms of other conditions, like vitamin and hormone deficiencies, depression, medication issues, infections and brain tumours.

Seeking a medical diagnosis early can help a person with a treatable condition be diagnosed and treated correctly. It can also mean a person who has dementia can receive the support, information and medication they need sooner, where available.

Some common signs and symptoms of dementia are:

  • Confusion (losing track of time or place, or forgetting simple words)
  • Change in personality, mood or behaviour (loss of enthusiasm for things usually enjoyed, unpredictable emotions)
  • Taking longer to complete routine tasks
  • Progressive and frequent memory loss
  • Apathy and withdrawal

What do I do if I or someone I love or care for starts showing signs of dementia?

Dementia: what is it and how to detect the early signs

Everybody forgets things like planned events or words from time to time, but if you are worried about your memory or someone else’s, it is important to talk to a doctor or nurse practitioner.

Support from friends, families and carers is essential for people living with dementia. This help and care can make a positive difference in someone’s life and truly help them manage their condition. There are also medications available, which can reduce some symptoms of dementia.  Psychological therapies, which can comfort a person or keep their brain active, have also been found to help manage dementia.

The first step is to seek a medical diagnosis and then receive advice from the relevant health professional/s.

Who do I call if I have more questions?

If you are living with dementia, or are caring for someone who is, you can call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500. You can also visit: dementia.org.au 

Latrobe Community Health Service has many services for people with, or suspected of having dementia, as well as their carers. Some eligibility criteria may apply.

Phone Latrobe Community Health Service on 1800 242 696 to discuss your individual situation.