Dementia is a syndrome of acquired intellectual loss – of memory, facility with words, reasoning, ability to carry out daily tasks and changes of mood – caused by progressive brain disorders, of which the most common is Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, one in fourteen people aged over 65 is affected by dementia. Each person experiences dementia in a different way. Other forms are vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, fronto-temporal dementia, or a combination. There is as yet no cure, but medicines, exercise and creative stimulation can improve symptoms and slow progression.
Some 820,000 people in England and Wales have been diagnosed with dementia (Alzheimer’s Research UK, 2010). Some 500,000 live in the community; those with moderate to advanced dementia may attend day care centres and benefit from artistic stimulation, but many more people, mildly affected for years, live at home, anxious to retain the undamaged part of their brain.
163,000 new cases are diagnosed every year. The Alzheimer’s Society anticipates that by 2025, one million people will have dementia.
Alzheimer's disease, which affects some 465,000 people in the UK, is named after the German neurologist Alois Alzheimer, who first recognised the plaques or tangles that physically change the structure of the brain – first the temporal lobe (memory and acquired knowledge), then the parietal lobe (skills and space) – and cause cells to die faster than in normal ageing. There is also a shortage of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages within the brain. No single factor has been identified as the cause. The disease advances slowly. In the early stages people forget recent events, repeat themselves. In confusion, they become irritated and depressed, and begin to lose interest and lack initiative, needing encouragement and support.
Vascular dementia occurs when the blood supply to the brain is affected by the death of brain cells caused by strokes, heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol. As vascular dementia can affect different areas of the brain – for example, the occipital lobe (visual processing) – each person may have different symptoms. More aware of their condition, they are likely to suffer from depression.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Named after the abnormal collections of protein in the nerve cells of the brain, Dementia with Lewy Bodies often progresses faster than Alzheimer’s. Symptoms may also include hallucination, falling and difficulty with walking.
Fronto Temporal Dementia, including Pick’s Disease
Problems experienced by people affected by the frontal lobe or the temporal parts of the brain, are different and cause behavioural change. A considerate person can become unpredictable, self-centred and, unaware, cause offence. If under-stimulated, the person another may appear apathetic, yet agitated and uninhibited when over-stimulated.
The Creative Brain
As the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotion, and the occipital lobe that transmits visual information, may not be affected for years, well-planned artistic stimulation can relieve and elevate people above symptoms of dementia.
“Engaging in arts activity empowers people living with dementia, and enriches life for them and those around them" (Dr Natalie Ryan, Dementia Research Centre, University College London)."
Participation in a favourite art form, or exploring another, offers the best direction for a fulfilled, social life in the community:
- Brings instant relief from stress and loneliness, elevating mood.
- Maximises aspects of cognitive function.
- Regains sense of self.
- Re-energises through social interaction.
- Aids communication with family and friends.
For evidence, see Resources.
- Elizabeth Milwain, The Journal of Dementia Care, vol 18, no.2 March/April 2010 and no.4 July/August 2010.
- ‘What is dementia?’ Alzheimer’s Society Factsheet 400 (2008).
- ‘Dementia Information’, Alzheimer’s Research UK (2010).
- John Zeisel, I’m Still Here: A breakthrough approach to understanding someone living with Alzheimer’s, London, Piatkus, 2010, 68.