WHAT IS DEMENTIA
WE LIVE INAN ageing world. Over the last century life expectancy in Australia has increased from around 55 years to 81.3 years in women and from 52 years to 75.6 years in men. 1 With more people living beyond their allotted ‘three-score and ten’ years, age-related conditions including osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, cataracts, stroke, cancer, coronary artery disease and dementia have increasingly impacted upon the health of our community. Of these conditions, dementia is the condition that evokes the greatest fear in those contemplating the prospect of a lengthy old age. The possibility of becoming mentally incompetent, forgetful and dependent, in other words senile, can be very disturbing.
First, let me clarify a few terms. ‘Dementia’ is a term used medically to describe a syndrome (set of symptoms) that is caused by many different diseases. These include Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. An analogy is the term ‘cancer’, which is used to describe any malignant tumour but is not itself a specific disease. The answer to the frequently posed question ‘What is the difference between Alzheimer's disease and dementia?’ is that, in a sense, there is no difference—Alzheimer's disease is one of the many different types of dementia.
The dementia syndrome is defined as an acquired decline in memory and thinking (cognition) due to brain disease that results in significant impairment of personal, social or occupational function. Other brain functions that are affected include orientation,