What is dementia?

The term dementia describes groups of symptoms that cause the progressive decline of your brain. Dementia happens when different diseases affect the brain - it is not a normal part of ageing. Dementia affects everyone differently, but it can often affect your ability to:

  • remember - for example, forgetting recent events
  • understand information and learn new information
  • concentrate, plan and organise things
  • follow conversations, or find the right words
  • remember where you are and what time it is
  • judge distances
  • control your mood, emotions and behaviour - for example, becoming withdrawn or easily upset
  • make decisions and solve problems.

There are many different types of dementia and it’s possible to have more than one type at the same time (this is known as 'mixed dementia'). Some of the most common types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease - caused by build-ups of abnormal structures (called 'plaques' and 'tangles') in the brain. They stop nerve cells from working properly, and eventually cause them to die.
  • Vascular dementia - caused by damage to the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the brain. The drop in oxygen supply causes brain cells to become damaged and die. This can be caused by strokes or diseases affecting the brain.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies - Lewy bodies are clumps of protein that form inside nerve cells in the brain. They disrupt how the brain functions and cause nerve cells to die.
  • Fronto-temporal dementia - this occurs when there is damage to the frontal and/or temporal lobes in the brain. This leads to clumps of abnormal proteins collecting inside nerve cells, causing them to die. It may also be referred to as 'Pick's disease'. 

See our factsheet Living with dementia for more information on the different types of dementia and their symptoms.

Symptoms of dementia

Dementia symptoms vary from person to person and often depend on the type of dementia you have. They will get worse over time. Common symptoms include:

  • memory loss, such as forgetting recent events or repeating things
  • loss of ability to learn new things
  • problems with concentrating, planning or organising, such as difficulties making decisions, solving problems or carrying out a sequence of tasks
  • language problems, such as finding the right word or struggling to follow a conversation
  • problems with orientation, such as losing track of time or getting lost in familiar places
  • visual perception problems such as misinterpreting what you see or problems judging distances
  • changes in mood and behaviour, and difficulties controlling emotions such as losing interest in things or becoming unusually sad.

As the disease progresses, you may also experience:

  • mobility problems, such as loss of balance and slower movement
  • changes to behaviour or personality
  • hallucinations or delusions (though these can be an earlier symptom of dementia with Lewy bodies)
  • difficulties with personal care, such as eating, drinking, washing and dressing
  • difficulties with continence
  • weight loss.

Some dementia-like symptoms can have treatable causes, such as a urinary tract infection, dehydration, depression, side effects of medication, stress or vitamin deficiencies. It’s important to speak to your GP if you’re worried so they can run tests to find the cause of your symptoms.

Getting help from the NHS

If you're worried about your memory or think you may have some of the symptoms of dementia, talk to your GP. They will look into your symptoms and see if there are any other causes. Your GP may then refer you to a local memory clinic or a specialist (such as a psychiatrist, geriatrician or neurologist). If you're diagnosed with dementia, the specialist will advise you about treatments that may help to control or slow down the condition.

You may receive other services such as:

  • support from a community psychiatric nurse, Community Mental Health Team or occupational therapist
  • talking therapies, such as counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), psychotherapy or an activity or exercise group
  • support from an Admiral Nurse, who provide exert practical, clinical and emotional support to families living with dementia
  • home visits from district nurses for care such as changing dressings or giving medication
  • speech and language therapy to help with swallowing or communication difficulties.

If you have a high level of health and care needs, the NHS may be able to cover the costs of your care at home or in a care home. For more information, see our factsheet Continuing Healthcare: should the NHS be paying for your care?

Living well with dementia

A diagnosis of dementia doesn’t mean you have to stop making plans or taking part in activities. You may need more support but you can keep doing the things you enjoy for as long as you're able to. Being active can help you to stay independent and keep in contact with people.

Regular exercise is good for your physical and emotional wellbeing. There are many other activities that you could enjoy, such as gardening, arts and crafts, cooking, visiting the theatre or a museum, and going on day trips or on holiday.

Activities specifically for people living with dementia include singing or music groups, or memory cafés, where people with dementia and their carers can socialise and share experiences. You can find information about local groups and social activities on Alzheimer's Society's Dementia Directory.

Dementia can impact other aspects of your health. Make sure you have regular check-ups with your GP and dentist, as well as regular eye and hearing tests.

Getting help from your council

If you need extra care and support, you have a right to a free care needs assessment from your local council. If you're eligible, you may get help with personal care, cleaning and laundry or meals at home. If a friend or family member is caring for you, they also have a right to free carer’s assessment.

You may also receive other services, such as an occupational therapy assessment to arrange equipment or home adaptations to make living in your home easier and safer.

Telecare is technology-based equipment, such as personal alarms to call for help if you fall or alerts that tell you when to take your medication. For more information see our factsheet Technology to help you at home.

Financial support

You may have extra expenses, such as paying for care, so it’s important that you claim all the benefits you're entitled to.

You won’t usually receive a disability benefit automatically because you have dementia, but you may be eligible for Attendance Allowance if you need help with personal care or need supervision to stay safe. You can have your application fast-tracked if you're terminally ill with less than six months to live. You can be eligible to make a claim if you're above State Pension age.

If you're under State Pension age, you could make a claim for Personal Independence Payment (PIP). The upper age limit for PIP is your State Pension age. If you get one of these benefits, you may also be entitled to higher rates of other benefits (such as your Pension Guarantee Credit) because of your extra needs.

If you have a certificate of Severe Mental Impairment you shouldn’t be counted for Council Tax purposes. If you live with one other adult, this should reduce their Council Tax bill by 25%. If someone cares for you, they may be able to claim Carer's Allowance.

You can use our benefits calculator to find out what you may be entitled to or call our Helpline and arrange to speak to an adviser.

Emotional support

It’s important that you look after your emotional wellbeing and mental health. If you’re feeling low, anxious or depressed you could try talking to a friend, family member or your GP.

You might find it helpful to someone who is in a similar situation. Alzheimer’s Society's Dementia Talking Point is an online community where people affected by dementia can receive support.

Making decisions when you have dementia

If you've been diagnosed with dementia, there may come a time when you're no longer able to make decisions about your finances, health or welfare. It’s a good idea to appoint someone to help you make or make those decisions for you by setting up a lasting power of attorney (LPA). You must arrange this while you're still able to make your own decisions - this is known as mental capacity. Alzheimer's Society has a digital assistance service that can help you set up and register an LPA.

If you lose mental capacity without having set up an LPA, a friend or family member can apply to the Court of Protection to become a deputy. This allows them to make certain decisions for you under the direction of the Court. However, applying to become a deputy can be lengthy and expensive, so it's a good idea to set up an LPA while you still have mental capacity.

You can also write down what sort of care and medical treatment you would or wouldn't like to receive in future by making an advance statement or advance decision.

For more information, see our factsheet Managing my affairs if I become ill.

Next steps

You can contact Alzheimer’s Society for more information about dementia.

You can also use their online directory of services to find support near you.

Dementia UK also offers support to people with dementia and their families through their Admiral Nurse service.

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