Understanding dementia - signs, symptoms and support

The first in a series of four articles to better understand dementia

Kilkenny People Reporter

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Kilkenny People Reporter

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Understanding dementia - signs, symptoms and support

Dementia: Understand Together

Over the next four weeks the Kilkenny People will be focusing on a different aspect of dementia. This week, we take a look at the causes, signs and symptoms of dementia and what you can do to reduce your risk.

The number of people living with dementia in Ireland is expected to more than double over the next 20 years – from 55,000 today to 113,000 by 2036.

It is estimated that there are over 1,200 people living with dementia in Kilkenny, while more than 4,000 people newly develop the condition across Ireland each year.

Although a dementia diagnosis can be frightening, there are many treatments, including medications, and cognitive exercises and rehabilitation, which can slow the decline in symptoms.

There is also a range of community supports for the person and their family, such as educational programmes, peer support groups, and support for making practical adaptations to the person’s life and home. Where needed, care is available through day centres and home care support. 

 Family, friends and the community can play a massive role in helping people to live with dementia. By showing understanding and engaging with people affected by dementia, people can help to eliminate the stigma associated with the condition. 

What is dementia?

Dementia is caused by a number of diseases that damage the nerve cells in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause. Vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and Frontotemporal dementia are others. 

Our bodies and brains slow down as we age. Having mild forgetfulness from time to time, however, does not necessarily mean a person is developing dementia. In dementia, memory loss isn’t just occasional and it tends to get worse over time. Other brain functions, for example, language skills and understanding numbers, are often also affected. 

Many people presume that dementia is a normal part of getting older. However, this is not true – dementia is a disease, and most older people do not have dementia. Dementia can also affect younger people – one in 10 people diagnosed with dementia in Ireland are under 65 at the time. 

Signs and symptoms of dementia

Memory problems are the most common symptom in dementia. But some people may not have memory problems and may instead find that they are having difficulty with everyday tasks or with problem-solving or finding the right words. Some find that their personality changes. 

Here are some signs and symptoms to look out for, which can emerge gradually, and change over time:

Memory loss, particularly of recent events or people’s names

Problems with language, or difficulty finding the right word

Changes in mood and behaviour

Becoming confused in familiar surroundings or situations

Finding it hard to start or follow conversations or TV programmes 

Problems managing money

Difficulty solving problems or doing puzzles

Loss of interest in hobbies 

Repeating a question or story several times without realising

If you are worried about your memory or think you may have dementia, it's a good idea to see your GP. Your GP will ask about your symptoms and aspects of your health, especially your medications, and will give you a physical examination and organise blood tests.

You will also be asked some questions or given mental exercises to measure your memory, language and problem-solving. Your GP may be in a position to say if you have dementia or not, or they may need to refer you to a specialist for further tests. 

Reducing your risk

Although we can’t prevent all types of dementia, evidence suggests that by making small changes we can reduce our chances of developing it: 

Get physically active – every adult should aim to include 150 minutes of physical activity in their week

Keep your brain active – stay mentally stimulated by engaging in everyday activities such as going to work or playing a musical instrument

Quit smoking – double your chances of quitting by calling the HSE QUIT team on Freephone 1800 201 203 or text QUIT to 50100 for free and receive a call back

Know your blood pressure – have your blood pressure checked at least once every six months

Healthy eating – a balanced diet that is rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, and fish is a good starting point

Alcohol in moderation – heavy drinking can cause, or worsen, dementia. Visit askaboutalcohol.ie, or call the HSE Alcohol Helpline on Freephone 1800 459 459 

Some of the dementia supports and services available in Kilkenny include: 

Kilkenny Memory Support & Supporters groups, St Patrick’s Parish Centre, Loughboy, Kilkenny. Tel.: 087 904 2967 or email hickeym6@tcd.ie 

Kilkenny Memory Clinic & Memory Technology Resource Room, St Columba’s Hospital, Thomastown, Kilkenny. Tel.: 056 775 4825 

This article series has been developed by Dementia: Understand Together, which is a public support, awareness and information campaign led by the HSE in partnership with The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and Genio. For more information, visit understandtogether.ie or Freephone 1800 341 341