“Dementia” is a syndrome (i.e. a pattern of symptoms) and typically involves loss of memory, mood changes and problems with thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language and judgement. It is the umbrella term used to describe the symptoms that occur when the brain is damaged as a result of one or more diseases or conditions, resulting in memory and intellectual impairments which are sufficiently severe as to interfere with daily life. There are over 100 different diseases or conditions which can lead to dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s disease and a series of strokes. The underlying cause is often referred to when describing the form of dementia, although a person may actually be affected by more than one type of dementia.
Dementia is usually a progressive or chronic condition. This means that the symptoms tend to develop slowly but steadily over several years. Recent research suggests that the underlying disease (e.g. Alzheimer's disease) may have been causing damage to the brain many years prior to the first symptoms occurring (and hence to the onset of actual dementia). Although the prevalence of dementia is higher amongst older people, dementia is not a natural part of growing old.
The gradual and progressive deterioration of cognitive functions, such as memory, reasoning and planning, affects people’s capacity to carry out various activities such as getting washed and dressed, finding their way around, preparing meals and handling money. Dementia may also have a social, physical and psychological impact on people. Sometimes, the reactions and behaviour of people with dementia are mistakenly attributed to damage to the brain when in effect, people with dementia are responding appropriately to frustration, worry, events or the attitudes and behaviour of other people.
The perception and portrayal of dementia within society can have positive or negative implications for the way that people with dementia are valued and treated, and how dementia is addressed (e.g. with regard to standards of care and support, the importance given to medical treatment, involvement in and the kind of research conducted, social inclusion and the extent to which the human rights of people with dementia are respected). The way that people experience dementia depends on numerous internal and external factors, including the support and treatment that is available to them. However, people with dementia are increasingly emphasising that despite the challenges that dementia brings, it is possible to live well with it.