Dementia

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What is it?

Dementia is the fastest growing cause of death in Australia. It has become the leading cause of death overall for females and second leading for males. It is responsible for 11.3% of all female deaths and 5.8% of all male deaths each year, most occurring in people aged over 85. Australia’s dementia rates are higher than other comparable countries2.

Dementia is not one specific disease. The word ‘dementia’ is an umbrella term used to describe the symptoms of a broad group of neurological conditions that cause a progressive decline in a person’s brain function. The knock on effects include difficulty in performing everyday tasks.

There are different types of dementia, each with their own causes, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, alcohol related dementia and Lewy body disease. All up, more than 100 conditions are said to cause dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, affecting up to 70% of all people with dementia. It damages the brain resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behaviour.

Warning signs

Given the complexity of dementia, diagnosing it can be a challenge. There are also a number of other conditions that have similar symptoms including vitamin/hormone deficiencies, depression, infections and brain tumours. There are some early warning signs to watch out for, however these can be very vague or subtle. The list includes progressive and frequent memory loss, confusion, personality change, apathy and withdrawal, and reduced ability to perform everyday tasks.

Risk factors

As with many other health-related conditions, many risk factors for dementia are within our control but others are not.

Fixed risks: The risk of dementia increases with age and currently affects more women than men.

It is more common in people over 65 years old however it can occur much earlier. Around 26,000 cases have been diagnosed for people in younger age groups4.

Some types of dementia can be inherited, but most cases are not. A number of genes in relation to developing Alzheimer’s disease have been identified but more research is needed.

Variable risks: A number of health-related conditions have been linked to some types of dementia. For example heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and high homocysteine levels are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Smoking has also been identified as a risk factor.

Protect yourself: Minimise risk

• The first step to protect yourself against dementia is to understand your risk factors. Some risk factors can be addressed through lifestyle changes and proactive management.
• Your brain matters. The importance of a healthy body is well-known but the importance of a healthy brain less so. Dementia Australia recommends five steps that can help keep dementia at bay: look after your heart, engage in regular physical activity, challenge/stimulate your brain, eat healthily and socialise.
• Knowing your risk, consider whether you have adequate insurance (e.g., life, trauma, total and permanent disability, income protection) to protect what you value most in life.
Questions? The National Dementia Helpline is 1800 100 500.

1. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2016~Main%20Features~Australia’s%20leading%20causes%20of%20death,%202016~3
2. https://www.dementia.org.au/statistics
3. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia
4. https://www.dementia.org.au/about-dementia/what-is-younger-onset-dementia

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