According to Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK), nearly half (49%) of UK adults say dementia is the health condition they fear the most.
Only a few months ago, former breakfast TV host Fiona Phillips revealed she too had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the the most common cause of dementia, at age 62.
It’s believed nearly a million people (944,000) live with dementia in the UK, with this figure expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2050.
But, how can you tell if you have symptoms of the disease, or just ‘normal’ forgetfulness and signs of getting older?
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What is the difference between dementia and ‘normal’ ageing?
“If people are worried, they should see their doctor, because that’s the only way to know for sure,” Dr Tim Beanland told PA, head of knowledge at Alzheimer’s Society. “As we get into middle-age – 50s and beyond – our brains will show signs of normal ageing, for example you take a bit longer to remember things and you’re a bit more distractable, so you’re attention is maybe not quite as sharp.
“You probably can’t multitask in the way you used to, you find it hard to do several things at once. Those are probably just signs of normal ageing, particularly if they’re just annoying things getting in the way of normal life.”
The “difference between normal ageing and dementia is twofold”, he adds. “Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain, and the symptoms get in the way of daily living. Normal ageing is little annoying things, but dementia is really getting in the way of daily living.”
Here are some possible dementia symptoms to look out for:
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1. Repeated questioning
Beanland says that if, for example, your partner tells you they’re going out in the evening but you forget what time they said they were coming back, that’s probably nothing to worry about. “But if you’ve got dementia, you probably won’t remember something somebody told you five or 10 minutes ago, and you might ask them with repeat questioning.
“For a family member it can be quite annoying – obviously it’s not the person with dementia’s fault, but they may ask you the same question over and over. That is suggestive of a problem which might be dementia and is the kind of thing I would go to the doctor about.”
2. Putting objects in strange places
It’s normal, for example, to forget where you put your mobile phone or keys. But when you have dementia, it’s common to put things in strange places, says Beanland. “You might put your house keys in your bathroom cabinet, for example. It’s a bit weird, but it’s the kind of thing people with dementia might do.”
3. Finding it hard to learn new things
Beanland explains: “If I got a new piece of tech or kit, it might take me a long tome to set it up, but I think I’d get there by following the instructions. But if you’ve got dementia, learning how to use a new appliance or device is really difficult.”
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4. Difficulty with organisation
Anyone may struggle to organise themselves from time to time, especially as they get older, which may mean it takes longer to manage the budget or pay bills, for example. “But if you’ve got dementia, people really struggle, losing the ability to be organised and plan ahead,” says Beanland.
However, it’s important to keep in mind what’s always been ‘normal’ for you – because it’s more about spotting changes. “If you’ve always been rubbish with the bills or have never had a good memory, you’re not going to get better as you get older, but it’s normal for you,” notes Beanland.
5. Struggling with daily life
If you’ve got dementia, your symptoms will mean you struggle with daily life, Beanland stresses.
“It’s that change from normal into these symptoms which get in the way of daily life, so you struggle to have a conversation and to organise things, you struggle to remember where you’ve parked the car, things like that. These are not just annoyances, they can really affect your ability to get on and do things.”
Get things checked
Experiencing these symptoms doesn’t automatically mean dementia, but Beanland emphasises that it’s always best to get things checked. There may be other underlying causes that need to be addressed too.
“It might be dementia, but it might be something else – if you’ve got depression is can affect your speed of thinking, if you’ve got problems with vitamins it can affect your memory, so it’s not always going to be dementia,” he says. “The main thing is, if you’ve got these symptoms and they’re getting in the way of daily life and you’re worried about them, then get yourself checked out, because it’s better to know and get help.”
Alzheimer’s Society support line is on 0333 150 3456.