Dementia – and its most common form, Alzheimer’s disease – affects the brain, in particular people’s mental cognitive skills like memory and communication.
It currently affects 850,000 people in the UK, with numbers expected to rise to a million by 2025.
Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty with language, decreased judgement and disorientation.
The condition is responsible for 11.6 per cent of all deaths – or one in nine people – according to recent Office of National Statistics data.
But how can the ability to perform mental tasks, and remember things, eventually kill you?
According to Dr Clare Walton, research manager at Alzheimer’s Society, it is because the brain plays a vital role in keeping us alive everyday – when it doesn’t work properly, this can become a problem.
“Brain cells are damaged and eventually die causing symptoms such as memory loss, confusion or problems with language or vision that get worse over time,” she explained.
“As more cells in the brain die, the symptoms progress until eventually the brain can no longer perform vital functions such as swallowing and breathing.”
Professor Graham Stokes, Bupa’s Global Director for Dementia Care (bupa.co.uk), explained that losing these key abilities can create a knock-on effect.
“People can become more susceptible to trips, falls and other problems related to not being able to move independently,” he said.
“Other symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s include incontinence and difficulty swallowing.
“These can lead to health problems like aspiration pneumonia – caused by food, liquid or saliva entering the lungs when a person has swallowing difficulties – and repeated urinary tract infections, which are the main causes of death at this stage.
“In severe dementia there is also the risk of dehydration or malnutrition, which can prove life threatening.
“This means that it’s rarely the disease itself which proves fatal, but instead the associated conditions.”
The point at which the condition can prove fatal in a sufferer can vary greatly.
“Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, meaning that symptoms start small but will increase over time,” said Professor Stokes.
“The speed and impact of Alzheimer’s can vary hugely between individuals, but generally speaking people can live for between eight and ten years after showing the initial symptoms.”
While the disease is currently incurable, millions of pounds are being used in research – including that funded by the Alzheimer’s Society – to improve care and diagnosis, develop new treatments and understand risk factors so the condition can be prevented.