Answers to some common questions about dementia, memory, risk factors and treatments.
This page gives answers to some common questions about dementia, which we hope you will find helpful. It does not replace any advice given to you by doctors, pharmacists or nurses.
Dementia: your questions answered
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 problems with memory, decision-making, planning, orientation, communication, confusion, changes in mood and behaviour, and hallucinations and delusions.
Dementia can be caused by a number of different diseases, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common. Other causes of dementia include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. In some cases, a person’s dementia is caused by more than one disease, such as Alzheimer’s disease and a stroke. You might hear this called mixed dementia. You can contact us for more information about the different causes of dementia, or read more here.
Most of us forget things every day, like people’s names or where we put our keys, but this is not necessarily a sign of dementia. In dementia, memory loss is more serious than forgetting things every now and then. It is memory loss that starts to interfere with everyday life, for example getting lost when going to the local shop.
There are many reasons why people become forgetful. Some medicines and drugs can affect memory. Depression, anxiety, stress, vitamin deficiency, infections and thyroid problems can also make people forgetful, so it’s important to get the right diagnosis. If you are worried about your memory, if it’s getting worse, or getting in the way of everyday life, then you should talk to your doctor.
Dementia becomes more common as people get older, so many of us will have a relative living with the condition – but this does not mean we will develop it too. Most of the time the genes passed down from our parents will only have a small effect on our risk of 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 find out more by visiting ‘Genes and dementia’.
In rare cases, someone may inherit a faulty gene that causes a specific form of dementia. Some rare forms of early-onset Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia are caused by faulty genes and can run in families. Symptoms of these often start in a person’s 40s or 50s.
No, but most people with dementia are over the age of 65. In the UK over 42,000 people with dementia are under 65, around 5% of everyone affected. 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. This is called early- or young-onset dementia.
Yes. In the UK, 65% of people with dementia are female and 35% 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 are underway to investigate whether men and women may have different risk factors for the condition.
At the moment, screening the general population for dementia does not happen. This is mainly because there is no simple and accurate way to identify people with early dementia, although researchers are working hard to make early detection possible. There is also not yet enough evidence to suggest that screening people who don’t have concerns about their memory is beneficial to them in the long term. Research is ongoing in this area.
Questions about risk
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 things 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, but dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing.
There is no sure way to prevent dementia, but we do know some of the risk factors for the condition, 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 maintain good brain health and help lower your risk of dementia.
Questions about diet
A balanced diet is an important way to keep healthy. This should include:
- plenty of fruit and vegetables
- starchy foods like potatoes, pasta, rice and bread
- some milk and other dairy foods
- some meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein
- just a small amount of food that is high in fat and sugar.
Eating healthily 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.
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 memory and thinking problems.
There have been reports that turmeric, ‘superfoods’ like berries, and particular drinks like red wine can lower the risk of dementia but there is no evidence that this is the case.
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.
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 we can make any firm conclusions.
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.
The NHS lower-risk guidelines recommend that both men and women drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week, spread over three or more days. Regularly drinking more than this increases your risk of developing dementia.
Very heavy drinking causes alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), a group of conditions including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome and alcoholic dementia.
Some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia but research is inconclusive. The UK Chief Medical Officer advises that even drinking within the recommended limits causes a low risk of harm to general health, from diseases including cancer and liver disease.
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 memory 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 causes pf dementia.
Despite occasional publicity, there is no convincing evidence that everyday exposure to aluminium increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other causes of dementia. During the 1960s and 1970s, aluminium was suspected as a cause of Alzheimer’s, but since then studies have failed to confirm a direct connection. 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
Regular physical activity can have many health benefits. It can help to lower blood pressure, which is good for heart health, and reduce 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.
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
There is evidence that the following conditions can increase the risk of dementia:
- Parkinson’s disease
- type 2 diabetes
- high blood pressure
- 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 our page ‘Support for people affected by dementia’ for a list of organisations and support groups that can help.
Some research has suggested that a serious head injury or trauma may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The effect of mild head injury is not so clear, however, and research is continuing into the risk of this type of injury.
Statins are used to treat high cholesterol. Recent large trials have not provided evidence that statins 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 doctor about having a test. If your cholesterol is high your doctor can advise whether taking statins is right for you.
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.
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.
If you are worried about your health or memory, it is a good idea to discuss it with your doctor who can listen to your concerns, run tests, give you advice and refer you to a specialist if necessary.
You can also visit our page Support for people affected by dementia to find contact details of organisations that can help you with practical and emotional support.
This information was updated in November 2018 and is due for review in November 2020. Please contact us if you would like a version with references.
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