What types of dementia are there? Signs and symptoms to see your GP about

Seeing GP about dementia symptoms. (Getty Images)
While it may be daunting, it's always better to see your doctor about possible dementia symptoms. (Getty Images)

Knowing when you might be suffering from symptoms of dementia can help you get the diagnosis and care, you need.

Unfortunately, the misconception around memory loss being a part of normal ageing is the biggest barrier to people going to see their GP about potentially having the condition, according to the Alzheimer's Society. This has led to one in four people battling with symptoms for more than two years before being diagnosed.

To help address this myth, the charity is sending out the message: "It's not called getting old, it's called getting ill."

Read more: Dementia could be prevented by regular hearing tests in your 30s, experts advise

With diagnosis rates at a five-year low, it wants to "encourage those who might be living with undiagnosed dementia to come to us for guidance and support and feel empowered to take the next step".

While it's understandable some might want to put off getting a diagnosis out of fear, the Society believes it is better to know, along with 91% of people affected by dementia.

What is dementia?

(Alzheimer’s Society)
Don't mistake the signs of dementia for just signs of ageing. (Alzheimer’s Society)

Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline of brain function, according to the NHS. There are many different types, with many different causes, and it is not a natural part of ageing.

For example, Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia are two different types, with both of them making up the majority of cases. Other types include frontotemporal dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), young-onset, as well as mixed dementia (more than one at the same time) and more.

It can affect memory, as well as the way you speak, think, feel and behave.

There are currently around 900,000 people with dementia in the UK, projected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040, according to the Alzheimer's Society. Some 209,600 will develop it this year, which is equivalent to one every three minutes.

The condition mainly affects older people, with the likelihood doubling every five years after the age of 65. However, it can also affect younger people too.

As well as misconceptions about memory loss symptoms, denial and referral times have also been barriers to people getting help, which is why being equipped with knowledge about the condition can increase the chances of people not only getting diagnosed, but receiving the care they need.

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Alzheimer's disease

Older woman looking wistfully out of window
Alzheimer's disease can make you feel confused or lost even in familiar places. (Getty Images)

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in the UK. It is a progressive condition, meaning symptoms develop gradually over many years, slowly becoming more severe.

The exact cause isn't yet fully understood, though factors that can potentially increase your risk include age, a family history, untreated depression and lifestyle factors associated with cardiovascular disease.

The first sign is usually minor memory problems, such as forgetting about recent conversations or events, or forgetting the names of places and objects.

As the condition develops and symptoms become more severe, as listed by the NHS, these include:

  • Confusion, disorientation and getting lost in familiar places

  • Difficulty planning or making decisions

  • Problems with speech and language

  • Problems moving around without assistance or performing self-care tasks

  • Personality changes, such as becoming aggressive, demanding and suspicious of others

  • Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there) and delusions (believing things that are untrue)

  • Low mood or anxiety

Read more: Daily brisk walk or bike ride 'may reduce older people's risk of Alzheimer's'

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia can make you feel disorientated. (Getty Images)
Vascular dementia can make you feel disorientated. (Getty Images)

Vascular dementia is a common type of the syndrome, caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, which often gets worse over time – though it's sometimes possible to sow it down. It can either start suddenly or begin slowly over time.

Symptoms listed by the NHS include:

  • Slowness of thought

  • Difficulty with planning and understanding

  • Problems with concentration

  • Changes to your mood, personality or behaviour

  • Feeling disoriented and confused

  • Difficulty walking and keeping balance

  • Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, such as problems with memory and language (many people with vascular dementia also have Alzheimer's disease

This can make daily life increasingly hard for someone with the condition, eventually preventing them from being able to look after themselves.

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Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB)

Thoughtful senior woman relaxing on bed. Senior woman relaxing at home. Woman having a nap on the sofa relaxing with her head tilted back on the cushion and eyes closed
DLB can make you feel sleepy or disturb your sleep. (Getty Images)

DLB, also known as Lewy body dementia, is another common type of dementia. It is caused by the Lewy bodies, which are clumps of protein that appear in the nerve cells of the brain. As it shares symptoms with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, it is often wrongly diagnosed.

Symptoms listed by the NHS include

  • Hallucinations – seeing, hearing or smelling things that are not there

  • Problems with understanding, thinking, memory and judgement – this is similar to Alzheimer's disease, although memory may be less affected in people with dementia with Lewy bodies

  • Confusion or sleepiness – this can change over minutes or hours

  • Slow movement, stiff limbs and tremors (uncontrollable shaking)

  • Disturbed sleep, often with violent movements and shouting out

  • Fainting spells, unsteadiness and falls

Frontotemporal dementia

Single lonesome guy checking cell on the couch
Frontotemporal dementia can affect your motivation. (Getty Images)

Generally speaking, frontotemporal dementia is an uncommon type of dementia. However, more specifically, while it occurs less in older people, it is the third most common type in people under the age of 65, according to Dementia UK.

It affects the front and sides of the brain, and causes problems with behaviour and language. Similar to other types of dementia, it usually develops slowly and gets gradually worse over a long period of time.

Symptoms listed by the NHS include:

  • Personality and behaviour changes – acting inappropriately or impulsively, appearing selfish or unsympathetic, neglecting personal hygiene, overeating, or loss of motivation

  • Language problems – speaking slowly, struggling to make the right sounds when saying a word, getting words in the wrong order, or using words incorrectly

  • Problems with mental abilities – getting distracted easily, struggling with planning and organisation

  • Memory problems – these only tend to occur later on, unlike more common forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease

As well as mental symptoms, there may be physical ones too, such as slow or stiff movements, loss of bladder or bowel control, muscle weakness or difficulty swallowing. Frontotemporal dementia can also lead to someone being unable to care for themselves.

Read more: Brain tumour signs and symptoms

Young-onset dementia

A woman of African descent and her doctor are indoors in a medical clinic. The woman is sitting and describing her symptoms to the doctor.
Young people should feel they can see their doctor about possible dementia symptoms too. (Getty Images)

Young-onset dementia is defined as someone who develops the condition before the age of 65 (the usual age of retirement) with more than 42,000 people living with it in the UK.

Younger people with dementia may also experience a wide range of symptoms, with the overall condition caused by a range of different diseases. However, the support they need might be different, because it might affect them different ways.

As listed by Alzheimer's Society, these include:

  • A wider range of diseases cause young-onset dementia.

  • A younger person is much more likely to have a rarer form of dementia.

  • Younger people with dementia are less likely to have memory loss as one of their first symptoms.

  • Young-onset dementia is more likely to cause problems with movement, walking, co-ordination or balance.

  • Young-onset dementia is more likely to be inherited (passed on through genes) – this affects up to 10% of younger people with dementia.

  • Many younger people with dementia don’t have any other serious or long-term health conditions.

Younger people living with dementia may also have concerns about how it will affect their family, relationships, finances, daily life, or the risk to future children.

Read more: Are you at risk of burnout? Signs, symptoms and how to deal with it

When to see a GP

While it's important to see a GP about symptoms, certain lifestyle changes can also help lower your risk of experiencing them in the first place. (Alzheimer's Society)
While it's important to see a GP about symptoms, certain lifestyle changes can also help lower your risk of experiencing them in the first place. (Alzheimer's Society)

It's normal for memory to be affected by stress, tiredness, certain illnesses and medicine, but if you're becoming increasingly forgetful (or are experiencing other signs of dementia), particularly if you're over the age of 65, it's important to talk to a GP about it.

To distinguish normal memory loss from memory loss that could be a cause for concern, question whether it's affecting your daily life. If it's worrying you, or someone you know, don't delay in seeking advice.

Alzheimer’s Society is urging anyone worried about themselves or someone they love to take the first step and contact the charity for support. Support and more information about a diagnosis is just a phone call or a click away. Visit alzheimers.org.uk/memoryloss or call 0333 150 3456.

You can also use Alzheimer's Society's possible symptoms checklist to help with a medical appointment.