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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Dementia

Mate wareware

Dementia is a general term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disease affecting the brain. There are different forms of dementia, with the two most common being Alzheimer disease and vascular dementia.

While for most people some changes in memory are a normal part of aging, for some they're a symptom of dementia. There are several warning signs that may suggest dementia rather than expected memory loss.

Although dementia is more common in older people, it can affect younger people in their 40s and 50s too. It's also important to know that not all older people get dementia (about one person in five over the age of 80 may get it).

If you're worried about your memory or the memory of someone close to you, make an appointment with your general practice team to talk about your concerns.

Symptoms of dementia

A common symptom of dementia is memory loss, which may cause difficulties with language, understanding and reasoning.

There are also more complex and varied symptoms of dementia. Dementia can cause difficulties with the way you relate to other people, changes in your physical abilities such as walking and changes in your mood and emotions.

Each person will have different symptoms with dementia and their symptoms will change at a different rate.

This page has more detailed information on possible symptoms, which vary with the different types of dementia.

Diagnosing dementia

There is no straightforward test for dementia.

Sometimes, memory loss can be caused by side effects of medications or medical conditions such as depression, infections, alcohol or drug use, vitamin B12 or folate deficiency or thyroid gland problems. There might also be problems with the brain such as bleeds or tumours. Your general practice team will ask about your memory-related symptoms, your family history and your overall health and lifestyle.

It's also important for them to ask someone who knows you well (with your consent) what changes to your memory and thinking they have noticed.

Your general practice team may also suggest some tests to look at your memory, language and mental ability. These do not take long and are usually a series of questions or other exercises that you complete. It's important that you take your glasses and hearing aid with you for these tests.

If there is no obvious cause, you may need further tests. Your general practice team may arrange blood and urine tests.

Sometimes your general practice team may refer you for a brain scan to look at the structure of your brain. This is to rule out any other condition or forms of dementia. If unsure, your general practice team may refer you to see a specialist for further assessment.

Once your tests and assessments are complete, you'll be given the results. If you're given a diagnosis of dementia, your general practice team or specialist will explain what having dementia means for you.

Self-care for dementia

There are several things you can do to make your life easier and help your memory. These include healthy lifestyle choices that may prevent your memory loss getting worse. See Self-care for memory loss & dementia for more information.

Medication for dementia

While there is no cure for dementia, there are some medications called cholinesterase inhibitors that may help some people. They work by either temporarily improving symptoms or slowing down the symptoms. Cholinesterase inhibitors available in New Zealand are donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine.

Getting support with dementia

Dementia Canterbury

Dementia Canterbury offers social work, support and education services to all people in Canterbury affected by dementia. It also provides treatment and activity groups for people with dementia and social activities for people with dementia and their carers. If you or someone you care for has been diagnosed with dementia, you can ask your general practice team to refer you to one or more of its services.

Dietitians

If you're underweight and meet certain criteria, your doctor may refer you to see a dietitian. In this case, there is no cost to see a dietitian and you'll be seen in your own home. You can also choose to pay to see a private dietitian.

Monitored alarms

A monitored medical alarm can help reduce the risk of injury due to falling over. See Work and Income for a list of medical alarm suppliers or search online for "monitored medical alarms NZ".

Carers

Looking after someone with dementia can have many challenges. See Supporting someone with dementia for suggestions to help.

Financial, legal and end of life considerations

It's important to consider setting up an enduring power of attorney when you're well so another person can look after and control your affairs when you're no longer able to.

Completing an advance care plan with your general practice team is also useful.

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On the next page: Self-care for memory loss & dementia

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2022.

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Page reference: 636815

Review key: HIMLD-33325