What are neurodegeneration and dementia?

Neurodegeneration describes the loss of neurons in the brain which cause a number of diseases and dementia.

Dementia is a word used to describe a set of symptoms. Symptoms between the different forms of dementia can vary a great deal and can include memory loss, confusion and mood changes.

Dementia can be caused by a number of different diseases – Alzheimer’s disease is the most well-known and the most common, causing about two thirds of cases. Other diseases that cause dementia include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. Often, dementia is caused by both Alzheimer’s disease and either vascular dementia or dementia with Lewy bodies, sometimes known as mixed dementia.

Who gets dementia?

Most people with dementia are over the age of 65. It’s estimated that 2%-5% of people with dementia are under 65. That’s 16,400 – 41,000 cases in the UK. Some rare forms of dementia can affect people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

In the UK 61% of people with dementia are female and 39% are male. This is mostly because women tend to live longer than men and as dementia becomes more common as we age, more women develop the condition. 820,000 people in the UK have dementia.

The number of people with dementia is increasing because people are living longer. It is estimated that by 2021, the number of people with dementia in the UK will have increased to around 1 million.

What are the symptoms of dementia?

Dementia often develops slowly and the early signs are not always obvious. Symptoms similar to dementia can be seen in other illnesses. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell apart dementia from the usual mild forgetfulness seen in normal ageing.

Alzheimer’s, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia are all neurodegenerative diseases, meaning that the symptoms get worse over time. This is usually the case with vascular dementia too. The speed of change varies between people and also between different diseases, but in most cases, dementia symptoms progress slowly over several years.

As dementia progresses:

  • People may find that their ability to remember, think and make decisions worsens.
  • Communication and language often become more difficult.
  • A person’s behaviour may change and some people can become sad or demoralised.
  • Anxieties or phobias are quite common.
  • Problems with time perception may cause problems with sleeping and restlessness at night.
  • Anger or agitation is common in the later stages of dementia.
  • It is common for people to be unsteady on their feet and fall more often.
  • Gradually people require more help with daily activities like dressing, toileting and eating.

Are there treatments for dementia?

Dementia is caused by progressive diseases, none of which can currently be cured. Some treatments are available that can help some people with the symptoms of dementia, including those caused by Alzheimer’s, but the effects are temporary and don’t work for everyone. Sadly no treatment can currently affect or halt the underlying disease process in the brain.

Non-pharmacological treatment can also help some people with dementia, including helping to manage some symptoms and maintain quality of life for longer.

What are the risk factors for dementia?

  • Age: The risk of developing most dementias increases with age, but dementia is not a normal part of getting older or an acceleration of ageing; it is caused by different diseases.
  •  Lifestyle: Risk factors for cardiovascular disease (like heart disease and stroke) .are also thought to be risk factors for some causes of dementia. So it’s a good idea to maintain a healthy lifestyle with lots of exercise and a balanced diet.
  • Genes: In most cases, dementia is not hereditary; the genes we inherit from our parents only have a small effect on our risk of dementia. However, in rare cases, some forms of early onset Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia can be caused by faulty genes.

What is the future for dementia treatments?

With only a few available treatments that only help some people with the symptoms of their disease, people with dementia deserve better drugs that hold hope of delaying or halting disease progress. This is a core ambition of scientists investigating dementia in the UK and internationally. The pace of scientific research into the condition has been on the increase and, while understanding still lags some way behind what we know of diseases like cancer or heart disease, there is cause for optimism. Our grasp of the genetics of diseases like Alzheimer’s, our ability to detect and diagnose diseases earlier, and the development of new compounds to act as treatments are all improving.

While we may be some way off a cure, a treatment that delays the onset of dementia by five years would halve the number of people who experience the condition, so scientists are focused on cracking this challenge.