Frequently asked questions

Answers to some commonly-asked questions about dementia, memory, risk factors and treatments.

This page gives answers to some commonly-asked questions about dementia, which we hope you will find helpful. It does not replace any advice given to you by doctors, pharmacists or nurses.

You can also read this information by downloading our Frequently Asked Questions booklet.

This information was written in November 2014 and is due for review in November 2016. Please contact us if you would like a version with references.

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The Basics

What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

The word dementia is used to describe a set of symptoms. Symptoms of the different forms of dementia can vary a great deal and can include memory loss, confusion, and mood and behaviour changes.

Dementia can be caused by a number of different diseases, with Alzheimer’s disease the most common. Other diseases that cause dementia include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. In some cases, dementia is thought to be caused by both Alzheimer’s disease and either vascular dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies. You might hear this called mixed dementia. You can contact us for more information about the different causes of dementia, or read more about the different types of dementia.

I keep forgetting things, have I got Alzheimer’s?

Most of us forget things every day, like people’s names or where we put our keys, but this is a normal part of life and not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s or dementia. In dementia, memory loss is more serious than forgetting things occasionally – it is memory loss that starts to interfere with everyday life. There are many reasons why people become forgetful. Some medicines and drugs can affect memory. Depression, anxiety, vitamin deficiency and thyroid problems can also cause forgetfulness, so it’s important to get the right diagnosis. If you are worried about your memory, if it’s getting worse, or interfering with everyday life, then you should talk to your GP.

Does dementia run in the family?

As dementia becomes more common as people get older, many of us will have a relative living with the condition – but this does not mean we will inherit it. Most of the time the genes we inherit from our parents will only have a small effect on our risk of developing dementia. In most cases our likelihood of developing dementia will depend on our age and lifestyle, as well as the genes we have. You can read more by visiting ‘Genes and dementia’.

Is it true that Alzheimer’s and dementia only affect old people?

No, but most people with dementia are over the age of 65. In the UK over 40,000 people with dementia are under 65, around 5% of the total. Many of these people are likely to be in their 50s or early 60s, but some rare forms of dementia can affect people even younger.

Are there more women than men with dementia?

Yes. In the UK 61% of people with dementia are female and 39% are male. This is mostly because women tend to live longer than men and as dementia becomes more common as we age, there are more women to develop the condition. Some studies have suggested that other factors may affect the number of women and men with dementia, but there is no firm evidence that women are more likely than men to develop dementia at a particular age.

Why isn't there screening for dementia?

At the moment, screening the general population for dementia is not recommended. This is for several reasons. Firstly there is no simple and accurate way to identify people with early dementia. Also, there is not enough evidence yet to suggest that screening people who don’t have concerns about their memory is beneficial in the long term. Research is ongoing in this area.

Questions about risk

What is a ‘risk factor’?

A risk factor is something that increases your likelihood of getting a disease. Your risk can be affected by something you do, like smoking. However, risk can also be due to factors that you can’t change, like your age.

The biggest risk factor for developing dementia is age – the older you are the more likely you are to develop the condition.

How can I reduce my risk of dementia?

There is no sure way to prevent dementia, but we do know some of the risk factors for dementia, and these can be changed. These risk factors are the same as for cardiovascular disease (like heart disease and stroke). By leading a healthy lifestyle and taking regular exercise you will be lowering your risk of these diseases, and it’s likely you will lower your risk of dementia too.

To keep healthy:

  • don’t smoke
  • keep active and exercise regularly
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • eat a healthy balanced diet
  • only drink alcohol within recommended limits
  • control high blood pressure
  • keep cholesterol at a healthy level.

Studies suggest it may be particularly important to keep healthy in mid-life to help lower your risk of dementia.

Questions about diet

What should I eat to lower my risk?

A balanced diet is an important way to keep healthy. This should include:

  • plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • plenty of starchy foods like potatoes, pasta, rice and bread
  • some milk and dairy
  • some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
  • a small amount of food that is high in fat and sugar.

A healthy diet is also important for people with dementia. It is worthwhile trying to maintain a healthy diet in all situations, whether living with friends or family, alone, in a care home, or during a hospital stay.

Will particular foods help?

Oily fish, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, is an important part of a healthy diet. Some studies have linked higher omega-3 intake with a lower risk of dementia but current evidence does not support the use of omega-3 supplements to prevent cognitive decline.

There have been reports that turmeric, ‘super foods’ like berries and particular drinks like red wine can lower the risk of dementia but there is no evidence that this is the case.

Can coconut oil help prevent or treat dementia?

We can’t be sure. There is preliminary research into some components of coconut oil, to find out if these could help people with dementia. So far the research is inconclusive so we don’t know if these compounds could help.

Can caffeine, ginseng or Ginkgo biloba help people with dementia?

We don’t know yet. There have been suggestions that these may possibly help, but research results are mixed and further studies are needed before any firm conclusions can be made.

What about green tea, curcumin or cinnamon?

While these natural products, or extracts from them, are being studied in early-stage research, there is currently no conclusive evidence that they could prevent or treat dementia in people.

Does drinking alcohol decrease my risk?

While some studies suggest that moderate amounts of alcohol are associated with a lower risk, the research is not conclusive. Very heavy drinking is known to cause alcohol-related dementia, including Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

The best advice at the moment is to only drink alcohol within the government’s recommended limits – no more than 3-4 units per day for men, and 2-3 units a day for women. Two or three days a week without alcohol are also recommended.

Is there any benefit in taking B vitamins to protect against dementia?

High levels of the amino acid homocysteine have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The B vitamins folic acid and vitamin B12 are known to reduce homocysteine levels and have been investigated for their potential to protect against cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s.

The latest evidence suggests that while supplements of folic acid and vitamin B12 can reduce homocysteine levels, they do not affect memory and thinking skills in healthy older people.

One study showed that high doses of folic acid and vitamin B12 could slow brain shrinkage in people with early memory problems and high homocysteine, but there is currently no definitive evidence that supplements of these vitamins could slow the onset or progression of Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

Can aluminium affect the risk of developing Alzheimer's?

Despite occasional publicity, there is no convincing evidence that cooking with aluminium saucepans or foil increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.

During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminium emerged as a possible suspect in Alzheimer’s but since then studies have failed to confirm a direct role for aluminium in causing Alzheimer’s. Although it is difficult to research as aluminium is common in our environment, exposure to normal sources of aluminium is not thought to pose any threat.

Questions about keeping active

Why is physical activity important?

Regular physical activity can have many health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, which is good for heart health, and reducing the risk of stroke. It can also help you keep your weight in check, which will reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and other conditions. While research is underway to investigate a direct effect of exercise on dementia risk, medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes are known risk factors for dementia. Therefore staying active may not only help maintain a healthy body, but could have knock-on benefits for brain health too.

Should I keep my brain active or take up hobbies to lower my risk?

This is a good idea, because several studies have suggested a link between mentally-stimulating leisure activities and a lower risk of dementia. Other studies have found that spending more time in education is associated with a lower risk. Research is ongoing in these areas.

Mentally-stimulating activities could include doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby. It’s not clear which, if any, of these things could be most beneficial, but it’s a good idea to do things you enjoy.

Other medical conditions and dementia

Do other diseases or medical conditions affect my risk?

There is evidence that the following conditions can increase the risk of dementia:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • stroke
  • type 2 diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • depression
  • Down’s syndrome
  • early memory and thinking problems known as mild cognitive impairment or MCI.

For advice on these conditions, you can talk to your doctor or visit ‘Caring for someone with dementia’ for a list of organisations and support groups that can help.

Does a head injury increase the risk of developing dementia?

We don’t yet know. Some research has suggested that a serious head injury or trauma could increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia, though other studies have not found this link. Research is ongoing in this area to help us understand more.

Can taking statins lower my risk of dementia?

Recent large trials have not shown evidence that statins, used to treat high cholesterol, could prevent dementia. It is not recommended that you take them for this purpose. However, if you are concerned about high cholesterol, you can ask your GP about having a test. If your cholesterol is high your doctor can advise whether taking statins is right for you.

Does hormone replacement therapy protect against Alzheimer's or dementia?

Studies into a link between Alzheimer’s and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) have had mixed results. Some studies show that people taking HRT have a higher dementia risk. Other studies suggest that it could reduce risk. More research is needed and women should not start HRT to protect against dementia.

Should I take aspirin to prevent Alzheimer's?

This is not recommended. Medicines known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include aspirin and ibuprofen, have been investigated to find out whether they could reduce Alzheimer’s risk. Some studies suggest they could have a benefit, but clinical trials have not backed this up. There are also concerns about side effects, so it is not advised to take these drugs to protect against Alzheimer’s.

Further information

Where can I go for help?

If you are worried about your health or memory, it is a good idea to discuss it with your GP who can give you advice, run tests and refer you to a specialist if necessary.

You can also visit our caring for someone with dementia page to find contact details of organisations that can help you with practical and emotional support if you have dementia, or are caring for someone with dementia.

This information was written in November 2014 and is due to be updated in November 2016. If you would like a version with references, please contact us.