Some 850,000 people in the UK are currently living with dementia and 225,000 people will develop the condition this year. While dementia is becoming increasingly common, there are many myths and misconceptions about the condition. Here's what you need to know.
Dementia is the name used to describe a set of symptoms that may include memory loss, difficulties with thinking, and problems with language. Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease or a series of strokes.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting 62% of those diagnosed, but there are many other types – such as vascular dementia (affecting 17% of those diagnosed), frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, Pick's disease and mixed dementia.
Myth #2: Dementia is a natural part of ageing
Most people who get Alzheimer's are over 65 – but that doesn't mean it's a natural part of getting older. While your risk doubles every five years over the age of 65, you won't necessarily get Alzheimer's disease.
It's not just older people who suffer from dementia. Alzheimer's can also affect people aged 30-65. Early-onset Alzheimer's is less common (around 5% of people with Alzheimer's are under the age of 65) and the disease is more likely to be inherited.
Myth #3: Dementia just affects the memory
Dementia isn't just a form of forgetfulness - though it does typically start by affecting the short-term memory - it can also affect people's personality and change the way that they think, speak and perceive the world.
Many of us have trouble remembering things as we get older, but people with dementia experience more noticeable memory loss, which may be accompanied by mood changes and confusion. Alzheimer's disease causes brain cells to malfunction and die. When this happens, a person may be unable to remember the name of their child or where they live.
If you're concerned about yourself or a loved one, it's important to see your GP. Lots of things (other than dementia) can cause memory loss, such as medication side effects, vitamin deficiencies or other health conditions that can be treated. If you do have dementia, an early diagnosis means you can get the support you need to live as well as possible.
Myth #4: If your parents had dementia, you will too
Some rarer forms of Alzheimer's are caused by genetics and passed on through the family – but these account for only 5% of cases. It's true that your risk is higher if you have a parent or sibling with the disease, but in most cases lifestyle plays a huge part. This brings us to the fifth and final myth...
Myth #5: Dementia is not preventable
As age is the biggest risk factor, dementia is not completely preventable – but there are things you can do. Maintaining a healthy weight, along with eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help reduce your risk - as can taking care of your heart, making sure your blood pressure is in check, and controlling diabetes if you have it.
Research shows that eating a varied diet with five to seven portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help protect against dementia – one study from 2006 suggested that drinking three glasses of fruit or vegetable juice a week lowered the risk of getting Alzheimer's by 76%.
Experts believe that the juice contains the skin of the fruit, which contains polyphenols – another good reason not to rely on vitamin tablets. Other nutrients that may offer protective benefits include omega 3 and 6 (in oily fish) and folic acid (in broccoli and breakfast cereals).
In addition, studies suggest that older people who enjoy an active social life, keep up with hobbies and keep their brains active by learning new things and doing puzzles, are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.