WHAT IS DEMENTIA?

The term "dementia" is used to describe the symptoms of a group of brain disorders that result in progressive deterioration in mental function. These symptoms can include:

  • memory difficulties (forgetting names, appointments)
  • language difficulties (problems with word-finding or understanding speech)
  • spatial difficulties (using objects/utensils, getting lost)
  • rational thinking (poor judgement/planning, disinhibition)
  • problems with social skills
  • emotional changes (depression, anxiety, irritability)
  • personality change

The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease, which usually affects older people, and where memory difficulties are central. Other common types of dementia include Lewy-Body Dementia (associated with Parkinson's disease), or Vascular Dementia (secondary to blood vessel problems or strokes in the brain). A significant proportion of patients also have Frontotemporal Dementia, a type of dementia that particularly affects behaviour, judgement, personality and speech.

WHAT MAKES YOUNGER-ONSET DEMENTIA DIFFERENT?

Younger onset dementia is a term that encompasses any form of dementia that occurs in persons under the age of sixty-five. It is preferred to the term early onset dementia that was often used to describe the stage of dementia, rather than the age of onset.

Although dementia in younger persons is much less common than those over the age of 65, it can be diagnosed in people in their 40s or 50s, sometime in those in their 30s.

It may be difficult to diagnose because:

  • dementia in a younger person is not expected
  • the presentation may be different than that seen in older persons
  • a psychiatric condition such as depression may be diagnosed first
  • a number of rare and less-well understood conditions can also cause dementia
  • As a consequence of all these factors, the number of people under the age of 65 with dementia is not clear.

HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE YOUNGER-ONSET DEMENTIA?

It is estimated that up to 12000 nationally have Young Onset Dementia. As awareness of dementia in young people grows, this number is expected to increase.

HOW IS YOUNGER-ONSET DEMENTIA DIFFERENT?

Although some of the needs of persons with younger onset dementia are similar to those in the older age groups, many are quite different. This is largely because at this earlier stage of their life they are likely to be much more physically and socially active. They may be employed, responsible for raising a family and have a number of financial dependants.

As a result these persons and their families face a number of challenging issues, such as accessing finances and superannuation funds, the loss of income/employment, and the changing social, occupational and interpersonal role this engenders.

Loss of function, understanding and insight can make coming to terms with these changes very difficult. In general family and carer burden is very high, with patients needing to be cared for by partners who are also managing a young family, or by elderly parents.