What is Dementia?


Published: 07 September 2022

What is Dementia?

Dementia is the term used for a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain - it is not one specific disease.

Dementia should not be considered a ‘normal’ part of ageing. Although it’s more common after 65 years of age, it can happen to anybody (Dementia Australia 2017a; ABS 2020).

Under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are six main cognitive domains that may be affected by dementia. They are:

  1. Complex attention
  2. Executive function
  3. Learning and memory
  4. Language
  5. Social cognition
  6. Perceptual-motor function.

(Dementia Australia 2017b)

It’s essential that you have an awareness of dementia, as it is a growing epidemic in Australia. There are an estimated 487,500 cases of dementia in Australia, and this is only expected to increase in the future (Dementia Australia 2022).

This article will outline types of dementia; signs and symptoms; presentation; treatment; and prevention, and will provide you with material for further research.

old man with dementia has his eyes closed looking sad
There are an estimated 487,500 cases of dementia in Australia and this is expected to grow.

Dementia in Numbers

Statistics of dementia in Australia in 2022 reveal that:

  • Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia
  • It’s the leading cause of death of Australian women, surpassing heart disease
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are three to five times more likely to develop dementia compared to non-indigenous Australians
  • Almost 1.6 million people in Australia are involved in the care of someone living with dementia
  • People with moderate to severe cognitive impairment account for 68.1% of all residents in residential aged care facilities.

(Dementia Australia 2022; AIHW 2021)

Types of Dementia

  • Alzheimer’s disease: The most common type of dementia; Alzheimer's is a degenerative illness that attacks the brain
  • Vascular dementia: A disease in the blood vessels of the brain
  • Lewy body disease: An umbrella term for the formation of clumps in the brain called Lewy bodies; it includes Parkinson’s disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia: Degeneration to one or both of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain
  • Dementia caused Huntington’s disease, which is an inherited degenerative brain disease
  • Alcohol-related dementia, which includes Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: Damage occurs primarily to the area of the brain responsible for short-term memory
  • Human immunodeficiency virus-associated dementia
  • Creutzfeld-Jakob disease: A rare and fatal brain disorder caused by a protein particle called a prion.

(Better Health Channel 2014a)

Stages of Dementia

There is a generally recognised trajectory to the progression of dementia. It is characterised by the following three stages:

1. Mild/early-stage dementia

A person is able to carry out daily tasks without assistance, but a number of areas within personal care and memory are observed as showing deficits.

2. Moderate/middle-stage dementia

These deficits have become more obvious and severe, and the level of assistance needed to function in and out of the home is steadily increasing.

3. Severe/late-stage dementia

By this stage, the person is almost completely dependent on the care and supervision of other people.

(Dementia Australia 2017c)

Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

  • Progressive and frequent memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Reduced concentration
  • Problems with spatial skills
  • Problems with language
  • Misplacing things
  • Difficulty with abstract thinking
  • Altered mood and/or personality
  • Apathy and withdrawal
  • Loss of ability to perform everyday tasks.

(Dementia Australia 2017a; Better Health Channel 2014b; Clark 2015)

Beyond these signs, look for more subtle red flags such as frequent falls or trouble maintaining balance; or unexpected deterioration of an existing condition (Clark 2015).

Dementia Diagnosis

Dementia may present similarly to many other conditions and symptoms, including vitamin or hormone deficiency, depression, medication side-effects, infection or brain tumour (Dementia Australia 2017a).

Diagnosis may involve:

  • Taking the patient’s medical history
  • Laboratory tests (e.g. blood and urine tests)
  • Cognitive testing
  • Brain imaging
  • Psychiatric assessment
  • Consultation with a neurologist, geriatrician or Cognitive, Dementia and Memory Service (CDAMS).

(Better Health Channel 2014b)

Dementia Risk Factors

Group of people running on treadmill for dementia prevention
There are several modifiable risk factors for dementia, including exercise.

Some people are at increased risk of developing dementia for reasons that are out of their control, such as age, genetics or incurring a brain injury.

There are, however, many modifiable risk factors that can be changed. These include:

  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Smoking
  • Poor diet
  • Excessive consumption of alcohol
  • Depression
  • Low cognitive engagement
  • Social isolation
  • Physical inactivity/obesity.

(Dementia Australia 2019; Alzheimer Society of Canada 2021)

Dementia Treatment

Ongoing support is critical for people living with dementia. As a care worker or healthcare professional, you are in a unique position to empower patients and their loved ones with relevant information that will help them to understand and manage the condition, for both the immediate and distant future. Your intervention could considerably improve their quality of life (Woodward 2015).

Pharmacological therapies may be available to patients. Additionally, referral to non-pharmacological therapies may be appropriate. Examples include:

  • Psychological support
  • Behavioural management
  • Other therapies, such as validation therapy, reminiscing, cognitive behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, and music, art and pet therapy.

(Woodward 2015; Healthdirect 2020)

While there is no known cure for dementia, there are medicinal options that are able to slow the progression of the illness and, in some cases, ameliorate the symptoms (Woodward 2015).

Early diagnosis is crucial as it ensures early access to support, information and medication (Dementia Australia 2017a).

People playing the drums as group music therapy for dementia
Ongoing support is critical for people living with dementia.


Test Your Knowledge

Question 1 of 3

How much more likely are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to develop dementia than non-Indigenous Australians?


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