Answers to common questions about memory loss and confusion.

Last updated: 26 November 2013

What is dementia?

Dementia is a name given to a group of symptoms which result from failing brain functions. The major signs are memory loss, confusion, disorientation and lessening of intellectual functioning.

We all forget things from time to time, perhaps a little more so as we age, but the loss of memory with dementia is different. It is persistent and progressive, not just occasional. It means losing a job. It means forgetting to light the gas. It means not being able to find one's way. Eventually it means forgetting how to dress, how to attend to personal hygiene or even how to finish a sentence.

What causes dementia?

The symptoms of dementia can result from many different causes. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 70% of all cases of dementia. Vascular dementia is the next most common cause and is often the result of many small strokes or decreased blood flow to parts of the brain. Other dementias include Pick's disease, Lewy Body disease and frontal lobe dementia. Dementia can also result from excessive alcohol intake over a long period, thyroid disease, brain tumours and AIDS.

Can Alzheimer's disease and other dementias be treated or cured?

Although there is extensive worldwide research being conducted, unfortunately, there is as yet no cure or viable treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Some other dementias may have a treatable cause and sometimes can be dramatically reversed. It is therefore vitally important that a proper medical assessment be carried out.

How many people have dementia?

The current statistics at 2008 are 227,300 people in Australia are diagnosed with dementia. Of that number 74,000 (2005 figures) live in New South Wales. The projections for the number of people with dementia in 2050 are 731,000 nationally.

Who gets dementia?

Anyone. Dementia can occur at any age, but older age is a risk factor for this disease. One out of four people aged 85 and over have moderate to severe dementia.

Is Alzheimer's disease inherited?

If you are a child, brother or sister of someone with Alzheimer's disease, your risk of developing the disease depends on how old your relative was when the disease started.

If your relative developed Alzheimer's disease later in life, say after 65 or 70 years of age, your risk is only slightly higher than that of anyone else in the general population. Your risk is much higher, 20-25%, if you have two generations of first degree relatives who developed Alzheimer's disease before the age of 65. If your affected relative is more distant, e.g., grandparent, cousin or aunt, your risk is about the same as the general population.

How do you recognise the early symptoms of dementia?

The early signs of dementia can be subtle and vague and may not be immediately obvious. When they do become apparent to one family member or close friend, other people may dismiss the evidence and say that 'it is just a passing phase'. And indeed there may be a logical reason for the changes that have been observed. Sometimes emotional states such as anxiety and depression can lead to a person becoming more forgetful and losing concentration. There are many causes for forgetting apart from dementia.

Symptoms of dementia may include:

  • increased forgetfulness
  • not being able to learn new information or follow directions
  • repeating the same story over and over and asking the same questions many times
  • difficulty finding the right words or completing a sentence
  • jumbling words or phrases (not making sense)
  • losing things, hiding them or accusing others of stealing
  • confusion about the time of day, one's current whereabouts or who others are
  • fear, nervousness, sadness, anger and depression
  • crying a lot or becoming silly
  • forgetting how to do every day tasks such as cook a meal, feed oneself, drive a car or take a bath.

What help is available?

​Professional Assessment

The importance of proper assessment is now well recognised. Your general practitioner may recommend specialised assessment services through your local Aged Care Assessment Team (ACAT) or a private consultation with a neurologist, psychiatrist or geriatrician. Alzheimer's Australia NSW can refer you to your local ACAT.

​Why have an assessment?

A complete assessment tells you several things:

  • what the illness is
  • whether the illness can be reversed or treated
  • the type and extent of the disability
  • the areas in which the person can still function successfully
  • the changes you can expect in the future
  • ways in which you can get support, assistance and help.

​Information and support

Caring for someone with dementia can e physically and emotionally exhausting. Alzheimer's Australia NSW is a non-profit organisation providing statewide support, services for people affected by dementia.

These free services include a telephone helpline which family, friends or anyone concerned about dementia can ring. Professional counsellors and trained volunteers can talk with you about your concerns and worries, provide information about dementia and how to manage the disease, as well as referrals to appropriate local community services. Face-to-face counselling is also available. Interpreters can be arranged for these services.

The Association coordinates over 220 support groups throughout NSW for carers of people with dementia. A dementia library and education service are also provided by the Association.

​Legal, financial and guardianship

Legal and financial matters should be attended to as early as possible when a family member has dementia. Both the person with dementia and family carer may require professional legal and financial advice to arrange a will, enduring power of attorney, enduring guardianship and other issues.

If there is a conflict in the family about the best interests of a person with dementia, you may need to contact the Guardianship Tribunal at 1800 463 928.

Services ACATs arrange

Help at home

Practical help to the person with dementia and his or her carer is often necessary. Community care services include: home nursing, bathing, help with housework, gardening, meals, shopping, etc.

Respite care

There are a variety of respite care options to give family carers a break. With respite care, the person with dementia is cared for by paid workers. Adult day care centres provide care for a few hours at a time. For longer breaks, care can be arranged either in the home, or overnight or several nights at an aged care facility.

Residential care

Full-time professional nursing care may be necessary as the dementia progresses. Aged care facilities (hostels and nursing homes) are available.

Help and support

​Helpline 1800 100 500

Alzheimer's Australia NSW
PO Box 6042
North Ryde NSW 2113

More information

Dementia Services Framework 2010-2015 - for patients, health professionals and researchers.

Public Health Units

Professional assistance is available through your doctor, public health unit or community health centre

Current as at: Tuesday 26 November 2013
Contact page owner: Mental Health Branch