What is Dementia?
Ageing

What is Dementia?

Dementia was recently named the second biggest killer of Australians. But what exactly is dementia? How did a memory problem get on the list of deadly diseases?

Most of us think of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease as a type of memory loss, a process of gradually losing our memories as we age until we no longer know what’s happening around us. And that’s true, but it’s only one part of what’s going on with this complex condition.

Dr Eamonn Eeles heads up The Prince Charles Hospital’s dementia research group and he’s also a geriatrician specialising in dementia.

He says Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but how and why it occurs is not fully known. Other types of dementia, such as vascular dementia and Lewy Body disease, are better understood because there’s a specific recognisable cause, whether it’s a stroke, genetic disorder, or alcohol-related damage.

But Alzheimer’s disease is still something of a mystery. It’s difficult to pin down and even harder to treat.

Put simply, dementia is a disorder of the brain. A common early symptom is memory loss, followed by loss of reason, judgement, and the ability to manage day to day tasks. People with Alzheimer’s disease slowly lose the ability to care for themselves.

How does it kill you?

The fact is dementia itself doesn’t actually kill you. But it makes you vulnerable to a range of other illnesses an otherwise healthy person could fend off.

Dr Eeles says to imagine your body is an orchestra with your brain as the conductor. As long as the conductor knows what he’s doing, the orchestra sounds pretty good. Sure, there are times when the lead violinist is out with tendonitis, but everyone else can still carry on and do a passable job. No one’s asking for a refund on their concert ticket.

But when your brain has dementia, the conductor is gradually losing his focus and the orchestra can’t work well together.

The aim is to help people with dementia live as well as possible. As dementia progresses, it puts you at risk of injury and illness and the body never totally bounces back. Because the brain is being attacked, it can be difficult to identify other serious health problems. A person with pneumonia might have no cough but worsened confusion which can lead to a delay in appropriate treatment. Dr Eeles calls it a relentlessly progressive decline, with only an average of five years from diagnosis to death.

So what can you do?

Most of us will have periods of forgetfulness in our lives. For the most part, it’s probably due to stress or lack of sleep. Sometimes, it might be due to an illness fogging your brain. But if you are worried, ask someone who knows you if they’ve noticed. A memory problem noticed by other people is worth chatting to your GP about to see what’s up.

Sadly, there is no cure for dementia. Currently, there are some medications that slow the progress in about 30% of people. But as it can take a long time to identify Alzheimer’s disease, the treatment might be too late to make a difference.

Dr Eeles is working with the CSIRO and Queensland Brain Institute to test a new brain imaging technique that he hopes will help doctors make a quick and definitive early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and identify which people fall into the 30% likely to benefit from available treatment. It won’t cure Alzheimer’s but by better understanding what’s happening inside the damaged brain cells of people with dementia, Dr Eeles is hopeful researchers will be able to find new treatments.

In the meantime, he recommends treating your brain well. Regular exercise, getting enough sleep, having a social life, quitting smoking and eating a Mediterranean diet are a good start. But fear not, while he suggests cutting down on alcohol, Dr Eeles says the occasional glass of wine is good for the brain and possibly the soul.

The Common Good

Published: April 26, 2019

Related news & events

2024 Queensland Philanthropic Foundation of the Year

The Common Good

2024 Queensland Philanthropic Foundation of the Year

National Volunteer Week for 2024: We are one of countless organisations across Australia that benefit from selfless people who donate their time to help others.The Prince Charles Hospital Foundation has been awarded the Queensland Gives 2024 Queensland Philanthropic Foundation of the Year.

Find out more

National Volunteer Week 2024 Australia: ‘Something for Everyone’

The Common Good

National Volunteer Week 2024 Australia: ‘Something for Everyone’

National Volunteer Week for 2024: We are one of countless organisations across Australia that benefit from selfless people who donate their time to help others.

Find out more

Tradie Health Institute May 2024 Update

Lung Disease

Tradie Health Institute May 2024 Update

Click here for our May 2024 update on recent outcomes achieved through the Tradie Health Institute.

Find out more

2024 Tour de Brisbane raises close to $70,000 for transplant research

The Common Good

2024 Tour de Brisbane raises close to $70,000 for transplant research

The 2024 Tour de Brisbane, sponsored by Transurban, was one for the books, raising close to $70,000 for transplant research done right here in Brisbane.

Find out more

Mother-of-four shares story of transplant journey

Patient Stories

Mother-of-four shares story of transplant journey

A Queensland mother who was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis and Chronic Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis and later received a lung transplant, shares her story here.

Find out more

The journey from the Cycle of Giving to the Tour de Brisbane

The Common Good

The journey from the Cycle of Giving to the Tour de Brisbane

In 2006, Mary and Mal Long started an event called Cycle of Giving to show their gratitude to Mal’s donor family and medical team.

Find out more

Chain Reaction Challenge 2024: Helping Kids visiting The Prince Charles Hospital

The Common Good

Chain Reaction Challenge 2024: Helping Kids visiting The Prince Charles Hospital

In March, dozens of cyclists from Brisbane will take part in a 1000 km cycle in and around Adelaide for the Chain Reaction Challenge 2024.

Find out more

30-year-old heart transplant recipient’s journey to the 2024 Tour de Brisbane

Heart Disease

30-year-old heart transplant recipient’s journey to the 2024 Tour de Brisbane

A Perth father who received a heart transplant three years ago is preparing to take part in the 2024 Tour de Brisbane. Read more about his journey and support his ride here.

Find out more

International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024

The Common Good

International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024

This February, we acknowledge International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024 and some of the remarkable women who are making a difference in STEM.

Find out more