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Saturday, 21st September 2019 is World Alzheimer’s Day, part of an international campaign to raise awareness and highlight issues that face people living with dementia. This year’s focus is stigma. The aim is to challenge the stereotypes and myths that surround a dementia diagnosis. 

Although awareness of dementia is at al all-time high, there is still widespread misunderstanding about what dementia is and what the difference is between dementia and Alzheimer’s. The terms are often used interchangeably suggesting that they are the same condition. However, this is not he case: Alzheimer’s is just one of more than 100 different types of dementia. 

In support of World Alzheimer’s Day, we offer a fuller explanation of the term ‘dementia’ and describe some of the symptoms that a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s might experience. 

Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive neurological condition that causes damage to brain cells. Abnormal proteins – amyloid and tau – build up in and around brain cells, disrupting their normal function. Chemical changes also occur, reducing the ability of the brain to transmit messages between neurones. 

The area of the brain first affected by Alzheimer’s Disease is the hippocampus, which is responsible for processing new information. Short-term memory problems are an early symptom, this is because the brain’s ability to retain fresh memories is impacted by the disease process. 

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia accounting for 62% of all cases. There are other types of dementia, some are related to Alzheimer’s, whilst other have a different underlying disease process. The symptoms, however, are similar, and most conditions that fall under the umbrella of ‘dementia’ are progressive. 

Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia, caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. This might be due to the narrowing or blockage of small vessels in the brain or the occurrence of repeated mini strokes. People with vascular dementia are likely to have other vascular problems such as high blood pressure. Diabetes also puts people at higher risk of developing vascular dementia. 

10% of people with dementia have a mix of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. 

Whilst dementia is more prevalent amongst older people, a significant number of people under the age of 65 years will be affected. The current estimate for the UK is 42,000. People with ‘young onset’ dementia are more likely to develop one of the rarer types of dementia, for example, fronto-temporal dementia (FTD) posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB). Each of these conditions have specific symptoms that cause a range of difficulties for the people affected. DLB originates in the cerebellum and is closely related to Parkinson’s Disease. A person with DLB will typically experience early problems with balance. FTD affects the frontal and temporal lobes and causes difficulties with planning, decision-making, judgement and behaviour moderation. PCA affects the visual cortex causing difficulties with spatial awareness and visual perception. 

Dementia is complex and every person with dementia is different. 

There has been more investment in dementia research in recent years. Scientists are working hard to identify effective treatments and a cure. Whilst we await some breakthroughs, what is important now is that people with dementia are treated with compassion and respect. 

Dementia is caused by brain diseases that are hidden from view. Every person with dementia is a person first – with a will to continue to live life to the full, to enjoy everyday pleasures as they always have, to remain purposeful and make contributions. It is incumbent on society – that means everyone – to make that possible.