What is dementia?

We answer some common questions about dementia: What is dementia? How is dementia diagnosed? What are the symptoms?

In Australia, dementia affects approximately three in every 10 people aged over 85 years.

What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term (like the word cancer) that is used to describe a number of symptoms that are caused by irreversible and ongoing deterioration of the brain.

Watch Marg Ryan, head of dementia services at Bupa Aged Care answers the question: What is dementia?

What are the main types of dementia?

There are more than 100 different types. An individual may have a combination of different types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
The most common dementia types are: 
  • Alzheimer’s disease

    This is the most common form. It is caused by damage to the nerve cells in the brain and results in forgetfulness, trouble with speech and difficulty with everyday tasks. Many people are confused about the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia - the key thing to remember is that Alzheimer's is a type of dementia, so they're not mutually exclusive.

  • Vascular dementia

    This is the second most common form of dementia. It is caused by tiny strokes in the brain and affects behaviour, speech and functioning. 

  • Dementia with Lewy bodies

    This type is caused by tiny protein deposits (Lewy bodies) being present in the nerve cells in the brain. They disrupt normal brain function, causing difficulties with memory, language and reasoning.

What are the symptoms of dementia?

All types of dementia have similar symptoms , but these are some of the main symptoms to look out for:
  • Memory loss.
  • Misplacing things.
  • Difficulty remembering simple words.
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks.
  • Becoming disorientated easily.
  • Change in mood or behaviour.
  • Becoming withdrawn and depressed.
It’s important to remember that these symptoms don’t necessarily mean your loved one has dementia; they could be symptoms of being run-down, or of other conditions such as depression. This means it’s particularly important to speak to your doctor if you are concerned. Read more about the most common signs of dementia here.
Man talking to doctor

What should I do if I think a loved one has dementia?

If you are concerned about a loved one or even yourself, it’s important to speak to a doctor as soon as possible. You're likely to have a lot of questions - the key thing to remember is that you don't have to do it alone. 

If you’re caring for an aging loved one, or someone with dementia, it can be hard to know where to turn to for help. If you want advice from a real person who can help guide you and connect you with the right support, call the Bupa Aged Care Support Line between 8am – 6pm, Monday to Friday, on 1800 780 038. It’s free, and available to everyone.

While you may become frustrated or confused with your loved one's changes in behavior, here are some ideas for how you can maintain close bonds with someone living with dementia, and some simple tips for communicating with them effectively.

Couple ponders what is dementia while looking at photos

How is it diagnosed? 

Your doctor will look at your loved one’s medical history and carry out some tests, such as blood and urine tests, to make sure their symptoms aren’t caused by another condition. 
After these tests, the doctor may refer your loved one to a specialist for further tests such as:
  • Cognitive tests to measure memory, language and concentration.
  • Brain scans (computed tomography [CT] or magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]) to investigate possible brain damage.

Read more about dementia tests and options here.  

Bupa aged care support line

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