Dementia is one of the most common medical conditions among older people. An estimated 850,000 people live with dementia in the UK. What's more, this figure is expected to rise over the coming years. In fact, according to Alzheimer's Research UK, one million people will have the condition by 2025, rising to two million by 2050 - that's an increase of 146%. We have already published a detailed guide to the most common types of dementia. Today, we'll be focusing especially on dementia symptoms. In particular, we'll discuss the warning signs of the four most common forms of dementia.
Dementia Symptoms: Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease is the most well-known and common form of dementia, accounting for two thirds of all dementia cases in the UK. This adds up to more than 500,000 people. Alzheimer's is a physical condition which affects the brain. It takes its name from the doctor who first described it: Alois Alzheimer. The condition affects the connections of the nerve cells in your brain. As a result, proteins build up and form abnormal structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. Eventually, nerve cells die, leading to a loss of brain tissue.
The symptoms of Alzheimer's progress slowly and affect people at different rates. In fact, it is highly unlikely that any two people with Alzheimer's will experience the condition in the same way. Furthermore, the severity of the symptoms can also be affected by other medical conditions such as infections and a stroke.
Perhaps the most well-known of all dementia symptoms is memory loss. This is the main symptom of early-stage Alzheimer's. In time, memory loss can have any of the following results:
- Misplacing items
- Forgetting the names of places and objects
- Forgetting recent conversations or events
- Asking questions repetitively
- Struggling to think of the right word
- Poor judgement
- Having trouble making decisions and being hesitant to try new things
Alongside the memory loss, you may also suffer from mood swings, becoming anxious, agitated and/or confused.
As you move into the middle stage of the condition, the initial memory problems tend to get worse. Lots of people begin to forget the names and faces of their loved ones. New symptoms may appear too:
- Impulsive, repetitive and/or obsessive behaviour
- Speech problems
- Suffering from delusions or paranoia
- Becoming more confused and disorientated
- Frequent mood swings
- Difficulty in performing spatial tasks
Because Alzheimer's disease is a progressive condition, dementia symptoms will worsen as time goes by. In the later stages, this can be distressing for people with the condition as well as their loved ones. The person affected may become suspicious of those around them, or may even display violent behaviour. Several new dementia symptoms can also appear. These include:
- Trouble eating and swallowing
- Losing weight
- Gradual loss of speech
- Short and long-term memory problems
- Movement problems
At this stage of Alzheimer's disease, people generally need full-time assistance with eating, moving and personal care.
Dementia Symptoms: Vascular Dementia
Next, let's discuss the second most common form of dementia. Vascular dementia affects around 150,000 people (17% of all cases). This condition is caused by a reduced flow of blood to the brain. Dementia symptoms in vascular cases can begin suddenly or appear slowly over time. Early symptoms of the condition include:
- Difficulty planning things
- Trouble understanding
- Concentration difficulty
- Mood changes
- Slowness of thought
- Mild problems with memory and language
At first, symptoms may not be obvious. They can even be confused for other conditions like depression. In any case, if you experience any of the symptoms above, you should contact your doctor.
As dementia progresses, symptoms get worse. This either happens gradually or in sudden steps every few months or years. Depending on the part of the brain affected, later symptoms include:
- Feelings of confusion/disorientation
- Memory loss
- Finding it difficult to concentrate
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Severe personality changes
- Mood swings
- Depression and related symptoms
- Difficulty walking and keeping balance
Dementia Symptoms: Dementia with Lewy Bodies
All in all, dementia with Lewy bodies (or DLB) accounts for 10-15% of all cases - that's 100,000 people. It shares many symptoms with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. In fact, many people confuse it with Parkinson's disease. The symptoms of DLB often come on gradually and slowly get worse over several years. The main symptoms are:
- Memory problems
- Difficulty with your visual perception
- Judgement problems
- Trouble understanding things
- Language problems
The issues listed above may be constant, but typically come and go over periods of time. Most DLB symptoms can be seen in other types of dementia too. However, there are a few dementia symptoms that are unique to Lewy body dementia. They are:
- Movement problems, similar to Parkinson's disease
- Unsteadiness, increasing the risk of falls
- Visual hallucinations
- Vivid dreams which might disrupt sleep
- Problems with the sense of smell
Everyday activities may also become increasingly difficult, and other health problems may arise. Most people with DLB eventually need daily care and support.
Dementia Symptoms: Frontotemporal Dementia
Unlike some other forms of dementia, the first symptoms of frontotemporal dementia are not usually memory-related. Instead, frontotemporal dementia tends to begin with behaviour changes or language issues. This is a particularly rare form of dementia which affects the front and side lobes of the brain. In most cases, frontotemporal dementia affects slightly younger people. Those between the ages of 45 and 65 are most likely to be diagnosed. However, it is like other forms of dementia in that it develops slowly over several years.
Behavioural symptoms include:
- Acting impulsively
- Losing overall interest in people and things
- Being insensitive or rude
- Loss of inhibitions
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Seeming subdued
Language-related symptoms include:
- Repeating a few phrases consistently
- Getting words in the wrong order
- Mixing up words - for example, calling a dog a cat
- Hesitating while speaking or speaking very slowly
As this condition progresses, some people also begin experiencing mental symptoms. In contrast, these symptoms are quite rare in the early stages of the condition.
Mental symptoms include:
- Difficulty recognising familiar people/objects
- Getting distracted easily
- Poor judgement or lack of organisation
- Difficulty making decisions, needing clear instructions
To repeat, you should contact your GP if you experience any of the symptoms we've discussed today. Even if you aren't sure whether they're related to dementia, it's always better to be safe than sorry. Early diagnosis is without a doubt one of the biggest factors in the success of dementia treatment.
Learn More About Dementia
In summary, if you’re looking to learn more about dementia, you can read our in-depth guide to the condition on the blog. You’ll also find some useful tips on how to cope with the condition daily.
What's more, we also have a guide to the 20 most common medical conditions which affect older people, if you or a loved one has any other health problems.
If you have just received a dementia diagnosis, or you know someone who has, then it's worth considering a personal alarm from Lifeline24. For further information on our personal alarm service, please speak to one of our friendly advisers on 0800 999 0400. Alternatively, complete our Contact Us form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
You can read this comprehensive guide to the personal alarm in order to find out more.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 20th June 2022 to reflect current information.