What is dementia?

The term dementia is used to describe the symptoms of a number of different diseases and conditions that cause the progressive decline of your brain. Dementia can often affect your ability to:

  • remember
  • learn
  • think and reason
  • solve problems
  • speak and find the right words

There are many different types of dementia and it’s possible to have more than one type at the same time. Some of the most common types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease - this causes disconnections between nerve cells in the brain and eventually causes brain cells to die.
  • Vascular dementia - caused by damage to the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the brain, sometimes as the result of strokes.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies - these are deposits of proteins in the brain which eventually lead to a loss of brain tissue and nerve cells.
  • Fronto-temporal dementia - this occurs when there is damage to the frontal and/or temporal lobes in the brain.

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. Common symptoms include:

  • memory loss
  • difficulty with planning
  • language problems, such as difficulty expressing yourself or understanding others
  • loss of ability to learn new skills
  • poor mental health, such as depression, anxiety or mood swings
  • loss of judgement
  • problems with orientation, such as losing track of time or getting lost in familiar places
  • visuo-spatial problems, which can make it harder to see objects of similar colour or detect movement

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
  • difficulties with personal care
  • incontinence
  • weight loss

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

Getting help from the NHS

If you are 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 psychiatrist for older people or a local memory clinic. If you are diagnosed with dementia the psychiatrist will advise you about medication that may help to control or slow down the condition.

You may receive other services such as:

  • support from a community psychiatric nurse (CPN) or Community Mental Health Team
  • talking therapies, such as counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy
  • an Admiral Nurse, who specialises in dementia
  • home visits from district nurses for care such as changing dressings or giving medication

If you have dementia and/or other complex health 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?

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 are eligible, you may get help with personal care, cleaning and laundry or meals at home.

You may also receive other services, such as an Occupational Therapy assessment to arrange equipment or home adaptations.

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 are entitled to.

You won’t automatically receive a disability benefit because of your dementia, but you may be eligible for Attendance Allowance to help with personal care. Or if you are under 65, you could make a claim for Personal Independence Payment.

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.  The Alzheimer’s Society has an online support forum called Talking Point.

Making decisions when you have dementia

If you have been diagnosed with dementia, there may come a time when you are no longer able to make or communicate decisions about your finances, health or welfare. It’s a good idea to appoint someone to make those decisions for you by setting up a lasting power of attorney. You must arrange this while you still have mental capacity.

You can also specify what sort of care and medical treatment you would 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 the Alzheimer’s Society for more information about dementia at alzheimers.org.uk.

You can also use their online directory of services Dementia Connect

Dementia UK also offers support to people with dementia and their families. Go to dementiauk.org.

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