Overview: Symptoms & Diagnosis (what it can be like)

Dementia is defined as the loss of cognitive ability that can occur due to damage or disease and which is particularly prevalent amongst those over the age of 65. Dementia is popularly associated with the less of memory but the degradation of cognitive ability can have many other consequences including a loss of attention, language disorders and a loss of problem solving abilities.

Unlike delirium, which has similar symptoms but is episodic in nature, dementia is long-term and permanent with sufferers typically experiencing the illness as one that worsens over time. Only a very small percentage of dementia cases can be reversed by medical treatment so it is a disease that has to be lived with rather than battled against.

As mentioned above, dementia is not a disease in itself but a symptom of other diseases. This means that dementia sufferers typically have a whole range of other symptoms to contend with as well. Common causes include Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s which each have other effects on the sufferer. The symptom of dementia itself generally begins with people beginning to experience the world as being slightly “fuzzier” than before – things are misplaced, names and places slip out of memory, appointments are missed.

It’s about more than just forgetting names and places, however, and as the disease progresses it can make many everyday actions almost impossible. Most of us walk around every day performing many different operations on autopilot. Making a cup of tea or a sandwich or taking the bins out are actually comprised of a number of smaller tasks and if you lose track of what you’re doing part of the way through it is easy to become disorientated.

This can make it difficult for people with dementia to remember to eat or to be able to prepare food for themselves when they remember. In the early stages of the disease some people manage to cope by an intense process of reasoning, figuring out the things they have forgotten step by step. This will tend to slow them down as well as making even basic tasks abnormally tiring. Sufferers in the early stages may also be aware that they should be remembering something whilst being unable to retrieve the information.

Another difficulty can be in following trains of thought, especially in conversation. People with dementia often have trouble communicating because they lose track of what their interlocutor is trying to say to them. Eventually, the erosion of a person’s memory can extend to their language and certain words may slip out of their vocabulary. This leads to many dementia sufferers adopting a distinctive form of speech which fills sentences with many artificial constructs designed to fill the gap left by these lost words.

One of the many unconscious coping strategies that human beings use to cope with memory loss is confabulation, or inventing a memory without realising it. As such, many dementia sufferers will also appear to be lying or making up a memory when actually their brains are merely subconsciously attempting to make up for the loss of narrative.