Dementia is one of the health conditions that people are most frightened of.
You may find it hard to accept that memory problems are affecting your life. If you're concerned about memory or other problems associated with dementia, it's normal to be reluctant to seek help and face such a diagnosis. However, there are potential benefits to getting medical advice.
Being diagnosed early can help you get the right treatments and find the best sources of support, as well as making decisions about the future.
A dementia diagnosis can help uncertainty
It may not be clear why you have problems with your memory or why your behaviour has changed. These problems may be because of dementia, or down to other reasons such as poor sleep, low mood, medications or other medical conditions. This uncertainty can be distressing for both you and your family and friends.
While a diagnosis of dementia can be devastating news, an explanation of what the problem is and what can be done about it may help you feel empowered and reduce some of the worry caused by uncertainty.
Some people find it helpful to discuss with doctors and nurses how the dementia may affect them or their loved one in the future, and there is advice available on how to stay independent with dementia and live well with dementia.
Getting treatments for dementia
Dementia is not a single condition – it refers to difficulties with thinking and memory that may be caused by several different underlying diseases. This is one reason why not everyone with dementia experiences the same problems.
Recognising that there is a problem, and discovering the underlying cause of the dementia, is important. This is because it will help guide your choice of treatments and services.
An early diagnosis of dementia may also be beneficial because some causes of dementia are treatable and fully or partially reversible, depending on the nature of the problem. Conditions such as some vitamin deficiencies, side effects of medications and certain brain tumours may fall into this category.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies gradually damage the brain. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor medicines have been shown to benefit in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies. These treatments, such as donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (various brand names), improve symptoms by making the remaining brain cells work a bit harder. Memantine is another medication that can help in Alzheimer’s disease.
Although they will not cure your dementia, these medications can make a significant difference to your day-to-day living and functioning.
Treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol and poorly controlled diabetes is also important, as is stopping smoking and keeping to a healthy weight. These factors (known as risk factors) all contribute strongly to vascular dementia, and may make Alzheimer’s disease worse. Your GP can assess your risk factors, advise if treatment is needed and monitor you.
Medications for other conditions can be reviewed, in case they are having a negative effect on how well your mind is working.
Other support if you have dementia
Whether or not there are specific treatments for the cause of the dementia affecting you, having the right diagnosis is important for getting the right advice and support. There is a wide variety of help and information available both for people with dementia and their friends, relatives and carers.
This dementia support includes:
Information on help available at home
or in the community, such as from social services
, day centres and respite care, community mental health teams, speech and language therapists, dietitians and occupational therapists.
Advance care planning and help with setting up a Lasting Power of Attorney
if the dementia is progressive. This allows a person to be involved in discussions about their future while they are still able to do so effectively.
Information and support groups. There are numerous sources of information and advice that are easier to find if you have a diagnosis (for example, the Alzheimer’s Society and FTD support group
). Access to a support group is easier if a diagnosis is clear, because support groups can provide specialist information and links to others in similar situations.
Advice and support for other medical conditions
If doctors and nurses are aware that a person has a condition causing dementia, this is also helpful when treating other medical problems. This includes taking extra time to explain things to patients in a way they can understand, setting up safer ways of taking medication (for example, pill organiser boxes that help you remember when to take tablets), and understanding and offering extra support if someone has to come into hospital as an inpatient for another reason.
Dementia research and planning of dementia services
Getting the right diagnosis is also important for research and understanding more about the causes of dementia. Better recognition of how important and common the causes of dementia are is vital for planning services to provide the help and support people need, both locally and nationally.
Find out more on the Join Dementia Research website.