Seeing as though it has been World Alzheimers Awareness month, we decided to revisit some of the Dementia basic information.

What is dementia? And how is it caused?

There are over 9.9 million new cases of dementia each year worldwide, implying one new case every 3.2 seconds.

Dementia is a general term for any disease that causes a change in memory and/or thinking skills that is severe enough to impair a person’s daily functioning (driving, shopping, balancing a checkbook, working, communicating, etc.). There are many different types of dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease. Most types of dementia cause a gradual worsening of symptoms over the course of years due to progressive damage to nerve cells in the brain caused by the underlying disease process, which is referred to as neurodegeneration. The symptoms of dementia vary from person to person and may include memory problems or mood changes or difficulty walking, speaking or finding your way. While dementia may include memory loss, memory loss by itself does not mean that you have dementia. While some mild changes in cognition are considered a part of the normal aging process, dementia is not.

The cause of dementia is unknown in many cases. Research is ongoing to better understand what causes dementia, but the underlying mechanism is thought to be related to a build-up of proteins in the brain that interferes with how the brain functions or works.

Neurodegenerative diseases, like frontotemporal dementia, lead to abnormal protein build ups in the brain. Different protein build-ups are seen in different types of dementia. For example, proteins called beta-amyloid and tau are associated with Alzheimer’s disease while the protein alpha-synuclein is associated with Lewy body dementia. Changes in the blood vessels in the brain may result in vascular dementia. In a minority of cases, a reversible cause of a person’s dementia can be identified and treated. Screening for these reversible causes is part of the diagnostic evaluation for anyone with changes in memory or thinking.

There is no cure for dementia yet, but there are medicines that can help treat some of the symptoms of dementia. There are medications that may improve memory for a period of time. There are also medications that are effective for treating mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, which commonly occur in people with dementia. It is also important that your provider carefully evaluates any medicine someone with dementia is taking, because some medications may make memory symptoms worse.

Already 62% of people with dementia live in developing countries, but by 2050 this will rise to 71%. According to South Africa’s 2011 census, there are approximately 2.2 million people in South Africa with some form of dementia.