People with learning disabilities, particularly those with Down’s syndrome, are at increased risk of developing dementia. If a person with a learning disability develops dementia, they will face different and additional challenges to people who do not have a learning disability. This factsheet is an introduction to dementia in people with learning disabilities, which are increasingly known as intellectual disabilities. It explains what dementia and learning disabilities are, and how someone with a learning disability is more likely to develop dementia. It covers how dementia in a person with a learning disability is diagnosed and treated, and gives some suggestions for how a person with a learning disability and dementia can be supported to live well.
The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. A person with dementia may also experience changes in their mood or behaviour. These symptoms occur when the brain is damaged by diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, or a series of strokes.
What is different about dementia in someone with a learning disability?
Dementia generally affects people with learning disabilities in similar ways to people without learning disabilities. However, there are some important differences. People with a learning disability:
- are at greater risk of developing dementia at a younger age – particularly those with Down’s syndrome
- often show different symptoms in the early stages of dementia are more likely to have other physical health conditions which are not always well managed
- are less likely to receive a correct or early diagnosis of dementia and may not be able to understand the diagnosis
- may experience a more rapid progression of dementia, although this can be complicated by difficulty or delay in diagnosis
- may have already learned different ways to communicate (eg more non-verbal communication if their disability affects speech)
- may already be receiving social care in the family home, or be in a supported living environment, where they are given help to allow them to live independently
- will need specific support to understand the changes they are experiencing, and to access appropriate services after diagnosis and as dementia progresses. These may be specialist services for those with a learning disability or general services for older people.