Dementia is a progressive disease of the brain and not a natural part of ageing. Although many people maintain their independence and live well for years after a diagnosis, the symptoms, including memory loss, difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language, can often be distressing for those affected and their family and friends.

It's a growing problem, too. Figures from the Alzheimer's Society estimate that there will be one million people living with dementia in the UK by 2025. Although risk of the condition increases with age, symptoms can present earlier in life. However, taking regular exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet and not smoking can all reduce your risk of developing dementia.

There are four main types of dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer's disease. Symptoms include memory lapses which interfere with daily life, difficulty in finding the right words, solving problems, making decisions, recalling recent events and learning new information. “People can also find it difficult to perceive things in three dimensions,” says Kathryn Smith, Director of Operations at the Alzheimer's Society. “For example, one patient I have spoken to finds it a problem to go anywhere where there is a black mat on the floor, as she perceives it as a hole in the ground.”

Vascular dementia

The second most common type is vascular dementia. “This is usually caused suddenly following a large stroke or, over time, after a series of small strokes,” says Smith. “Symptoms vary and can overlap with those of Alzheimer's disease, but may include difficulties with problem-solving and planning, thinking quickly and concentrating. People may also have short periods where they become very confused.”

The third type of dementia is known as Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) which again shares symptoms with Alzheimer's but also Parkinson's Disease. These may include fluctuating attention and alertness, visual hallucinations and difficulty judging distances. Up to two thirds of people with DLB experience movement problems when the condition is diagnosed, and this is exacerbated as the condition progresses.

The fourth type is fronto-temporal dementia. “This name refers to the lobes of the brain — the front and the side — that are affected by the disease,” says Smith. “With this type of dementia, personality, mood and behavioural changes may be the most obvious symptoms. A person might become more aggressive — or more accepting — or their inhibitions may alter. They may experience difficulties with fluent speech and/or forget the meanings of words and objects.”

Developing symptoms

There are also non-dementia illnesses — such as urinary tract infection, vitamin B deficiencies, depression and thyroid issues — which nevertheless cause similar symptoms. Yet if you are concerned that you are developing any symptoms of dementia it is important to get an early assessment from your GP, who should refer you to a memory clinic, where you may undertake a memory assessment and be referred for an MRI brain scan.

Currently there is no cure for dementia, but treatments are available which may ease symptoms in some cases. “If you have dementia and your memory, personality and behaviour is affected, it will impact on your life and worry you and your family,” says Smith. “But a formal diagnosis can be a relief to some patients if only because they then understand what is happening to them. They can also seek support, plus investigate the tools and techniques available to help them manage their condition and their life.

“Also, once you get to the point where you are not able to make decisions by yourself, then someone else will need to make them on your behalf; and if you haven't already arranged lasting power of attorney, that might be someone you would prefer not to be making decisions for you. Your case might even have to go to court, which can be very difficult and stressful for your loved ones. For all these reasons, receiving a proper dementia diagnosis is very important.”