Dementia is a serious health concern in Australia. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia and there are over 447,000 Australians living with the condition.
What is dementia?
Dementia isn’t a singular disease – it describes a collection of symptoms. There are over 100 diseases that can cause dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and well-known cause of dementia.
The condition can affect a person’s:
- ability to perform everyday tasks.
Symptoms of dementia
The symptoms of dementia vary a great deal and some of the early signs may not be that obvious. These signs can often be mistaken as normal signs of ageing. One of the first signs to look out for is memory problems, and particularly trouble remembering recent events.
Some of the other warning signs of dementia can include:
- difficulty performing familiar tasks
- problems with language
- disorientation with time and place
- recent memory loss that affects the person’s job
- problems with abstract thinking
- misplacing things
- changes in personality
- changes in mood and behaviour
- apathy and withdrawal
- poor judgement
Even if someone is experiencing these symptoms, don’t immediately assume that it’s dementia. You’ll need to see a doctor to get a correct diagnosis.
Causes of dementia
There are over 100 different conditions that can cause dementia. The most common of these include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Some forms of multiple sclerosis
Risk factors for developing dementia
There are a different types of risk factors for developing dementia and these include medical, genetic and lifestyle factors.
As well as a range of other health problems that smoking causes, it’s also likely to increase your risk of dementia. This is because smoking increases your risk of atherosclerosis and other types of vascular disease and these conditions contribute to dementia. So, if you do smoke, this is yet another reason to quit.
Like smoking, high alcohol consumption can increase your risk of developing dementia. Long term heavy drinking can mean you’re more likely to develop a specific type of dementia known as Korsakoff Syndrome.
When you’re over the age of 65, the risk of developing dementia doubles every five years. This may be due to factors like:
- high blood pressure
- changes to nerve cells and cell structure
- weakening of the body’s natural repair system
Many types of dementia have genetic components. For example, you’re more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease if you have a close relative (parent or sibling) who has had the condition. However, this doesn’t mean it’s inevitable for you, it’s just a risk factor.
Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men. We’re not really sure why that is, but unfortunately for women, it seems to be a fact.
There is some evidence to suggest that people from southern parts of Asia like India and Pakistan and people from Africa seem to have a higher risk of developing dementia.
There is evidence to suggest that certain cardiovascular factors increase someone’s chance of developing dementia. The four main factors include:
- type 2 diabetes - in mid or later life
- high blood pressure – in mid-life
- high total blood cholesterol levels – in mid-life
- ·obesity – in mid-life
There’s also some evidence to suggest that if you have depression in mid or later life, it could increase your risk of developing dementia.
Lifestyle changes to reduce your risk
Alzheimer’s UK outlines 6 main lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of developing dementia.
- Be physical active - regular moderate exercise is one of the best ways you can reduce your risk. This means exercising give times a week for 30 minutes each time.
- Stop smoking – as smoking is a risk factor, it’s best to quit smoking as soon as you can.
- Eat healthily – a healthy balanced diet rich in vegetables, fruit and fatty fish can all help to reduce your risk. For more information, read the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
- Maintain a healthy weight – a healthy weight reduces your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease and therefore dementia as well.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink – as high levels of alcohol consumption increases your risk of dementia, limiting alcohol or cutting it out completely is the best way to go.
- Stay mentally active – regularly stimulating your mind could help to delay the symptoms of dementia for several years.
Where to get help
Seeing your GP
If you think you or someone you know is experiencing Dementia, it’s best to see your GP. They can start the diagnostic process and if necessary, suggest follow-up tests. They can also refer you to a neurologist, geriatrician or psychiatrist.
National Dementia Helpline
You can call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.
The helpline is a free confidential phone and email information and support service which provides information about:
- dementia and memory loss
- reducing your risk of dementia
- government support
- services in your area
The helpline also provides emotional support to help you manage the impact of dementia.
If you’re a carer of someone with dementia
If you’re looking after someone with dementia, it can take a huge toll on your physical and emotional health. There are support services available to help you in this time.
A good place to start is the Carer Gateway. They can help you with:
- respite care (taking a break from caring)
- help and advice
- financial support
- phone counselling
- ways to connect with other carers
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.