Dementia is a general term used to describe a decline in mental functioning to the point that it impairs a person's ability to carry out daily tasks.

Dementia is a term to describe a group of related symptoms that is associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities. It includes:

  • memory
  • thinking speed
  • mental agility
  • language
  • understanding
  • judgement.

These usually develop and worsens slowly over time.undefined

There are a number of different types of dementia. The most common – affecting about 60% of people with dementia – is Alzheimers disease. Treatment options depend on the diagnosis and cause of the dementia.

Medications cannot cure dementia or repair brain damage. However, they may improve symptoms or slow down the disease for a short period of time.

Getting an early diagnosis can be a great help. Knowing what is going on means you will be able to plan ahead and get the support you need.

There are many causes and diseases leading to dementia including Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease, damage to the brain's blood vessels from diabetes, smoking, or a stroke and damage from toxins such as alcohol.

Early onset dementia

Early onset dementia (or young onset dementia) is the term used to describe dementia that occurs in people under 65 years of age. It is estimated that 5% of people who develop dementia will have early onset.

People with early onset dementia and their families / carers often face significant changes to their financial situation. They may still be in full employment and have dependent others, a young family, and financial obligations such as home ownership.

Later, ongoing employment may become an issue and this can lead to financial hardship for significant others, and family may have to leave work themselves to provide care and to manage financial and legal matters. However, ensuring that people are supported to be as independent as possible for as long as possible is very important.

Check out this recent article from the NZ Herald: This silent epidemic is stealing our future. About an increase in cases of early onset dementia.

Symptoms of dementia

While remembering people's names and forgetting something from time to time is a normal part of ageing, forgetting how to carry out daily tasks is not. If you or someone else is concerned about your memory, it‘s important to see your GP.

  • There are many causes of forgetfulness or memory loss that are treatable such as stress, depression, diabetes or side effects of medication.
  • See your family doctor and they can do some simple memory tests and refer you for further assessment if needed.
  • If memory loss is due to dementia it is important to get an early diagnosis.
  • An early diagnosis of dementia can help you to get the best benefit from current treatments that are available.
  • It will also help you to plan for the future and get the right support and advice. (Based on advice from Ministry of Health dementia webpage)

Treatment for dementia

Although there is no cure for dementia, there are now medications that can help some people with the symptoms of forgetfulness and confusion in earlier stages. These medicines fall into 2 categories:

  • cholinesterase inhibitors (such as donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine)
  • memantine.

They all work by enhancing the levels of a chemical in the brain (called acetylcholine), that is involved in memory and judgment. Read more about medicines for dementia.

Driving and dementia

Driving requires quick reflexes and decision-making. While most people voluntarily stop driving following a dementia diagnosis, some don’t. However, as dementia progresses, there will come a time when driving is unsafe and not possible due to impaired thinking and reaction times. Read more about dementia and driving.


Phone support: 0800 004 001 Alzheimers New Zealand

If you or a loved one has dementia, there are a wide range of support organisations and services who are there to help you. A good time to find out about these is in the early stages so the person with dementia can talk about what is important to them and help plan for the future.

If you are looking after someone with dementia, make sure you get support for yourself. There are also many practical tips and ideas you can learn from others who really understand.

Enduring power of attorney

An information campaign was launched in late June 2014 which aims to encourage people to protect their futures by setting up and enduring power of attorney.  Information and brochures are now available at the Ministry of Social Development website or at your local Citizens Advice Bureau, public libraries, Community Law Centres and Age Concern offices.

The first ever dementia friendly bank 

Westpac New Zealands dementia friendly banking initiative 

Westpac in conjunction with Alzheimer’s Auckland is training staff to help recognize, understand and respond to the needs of customers living with dementia and their carers.

The purpose of the move, which includes training, building accreditation and financial services such as money management classes, is so that people with dementia can plan ahead, access financial services and get help to remain independent for as long as possible.

Learn more

Booklets and factsheets Alzheimer's NZ
Dementia Auckland 
Alzheimer's Australia
Short films about Alzheimer's disease Public Broadcasting Service, USA, 2010
Dementia - introduction NHS Choices 
World Alzheimers Month – quarterly newsletter Alzheimers New Zealand 
Types of dementia and causes Best Health UK
Dealing Daily with Dementia: 2000+ Practical Hints & Strategies for Carers (book) 
This silent epidemic is stealing our future NZ Herald, 2015
FREE 1/2 hour consultation with an Alzheimer's NZ senior trustee Open to existing and newly diagnosed dementia patients, their families and supporters. Freephone 0800 156 015 to book.
World Alzheimer  full Report 2015 (PDF 92 pages) Summary Sheet (PDF 2 pages) Alzheimer's Disease International

Credits: Sue Thomson, Northern Regional Dementia Behavioural Support and Advisory Coordinator, July 2015.