Dementia is a group of symptoms involving the loss of brain function.

Four elderly people around a table

Dementia is associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities, affecting cognitive ability, memory and behaviour.

Causes include poor blood flow, strokes or damage to the internal structure of the brain’s nerve cells. Damage can be caused by diseases and infections that affect the brain (such as Alzheimer’s disease or meningitis), pressure on the brain (by, for example, a brain tumour), lack of blood and oxygen supply to the brain (due, for example, to a stroke), and head injury.

Types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: The most common form of dementia, in which “plaques” and “tangles” develop in the structure of the brain, leading to the death of cells.
  • Vascular dementia: The second most common form of dementia, caused by problems in the supply of blood to the brain.
  • Fronto-temporal dementia: a rare form of dementia caused by damage to the frontal lobe and/or the temporal parts of the brain.

Dementia usually affects older people, and about one in 20 people over the age of 65 will develop some degree of dementia. This increases to about one in six people over the age of 85. Dementia can develop in younger people, but is less common.

What are its symptoms?

In most cases, dementia symptoms progress gradually, over several years. The early signs, usually memory problems, may not be immediately obvious.

Symptoms vary, and forgetting things is a normal part of ageing, but those with dementia often have one or more of the following:

  • Memory loss
  • Struggling with simple tasks and activities
  • Becoming confused in unfamiliar environments
  • Difficulty finding the right words
  • Difficulty with numbers and/or handling money in shops
  • Changes in personality
  • Depression

Some types of dementia can cause less common symptoms, including:

  • Hallucinations
  • Obsessive or repetitive behaviour
  • The belief that they have done or experienced things that never happened
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Physical deterioration
  • Weight loss
  • Vulnerability to infection
  • Incontinence

How is it diagnosed?

There is no one dementia test, so diagnosis can be challenging and will require several visits to your doctor or specialist.

Your doctor will review your medical history and symptoms and conduct a physical examination. Doctors may order a number of tests in a dementia diagnosis to rule out other conditions. These tests include:

  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests
  • Neurological evaluation
  • Laboratory tests
  • Psychiatric evaluation

Many people have memory loss issues, but this does not mean they have Alzheimer's disease or another dementia.

Some causes of dementia-like symptoms can be reversed so be sure to consult a doctor as soon as possible.

What are your treatment options?

There is no dementia cure. Exceptions are dementias related to vitamin or hormone deficiency, head injury, hydrocephalus (excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain), or tumour medication and infections.

Dementia treatment depends on its cause. In the case of most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure and nothing can slow or stop its progression.

There are drugs that can provide temporarily relief though. The same medication used to treat Alzheimer’s disease are among the drugs sometimes prescribed to help with symptoms of other types of dementias.

Non-drug therapies can also alleviate some symptoms of dementia. Your doctor will be able to advise on the best treatment method for you.

Can it be prevented?

Dementia prevention is not possible but you can reduce the risk of vascular dementia by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Take regular exercise
  • Don’t drink more than the safe recommended limit of alcohol
  • Don’t smoke
  • Manage health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension) and high cholesterol
  • Stay mentally alert
  • Stay involved socially
  • If your doctor recommends it, take aspirin.

People who have dementia caused by stroke may be able to prevent future decline by lowering their risk of heart disease and stroke.

For more info
Dementia South Africa

Alzheimer’s South Africa 

South African Depression and Anxiety Group 

What to do now

Clicks Clinics will help you prevent, identify and manage diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) with their wide range of screening tests and health assessments. These include:

  • Glucose Screening with Consultation
  • Urine Test (tests for blood, protein and glucose)
  • Blood Pressure Test
  • Cholesterol Testing and Consultation
  • Lipogram Blood Test (to determine different types of cholesterol)
  • Foot Screening Consultation (to check for diabetes-related foot problems)
  • Clicks Full Basic Screening (BP, Body Mass Index or BMI, meal guide and exercise plan)
  • Clicks Screening Measurements only (BP and BMI)
  • Clicks Comprehensive Screening (BP, BMI, Glucose and Cholesterol screening, plus meal and exercise plan).

To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2015