Understanding dementia

In adulthood and childhood

Dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is most common in people over the age of 65 years, but it is not a normal part of ageing.

What causes dementia?

Family history

Family history of Alzheimer’s increases your chance of developing the disease compared to those with no family history.


After the age of 65 the risk of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s, doubles every five years.


Certain genes increase Alzheimer’s risk. You can get tested for some of these particular genes by asking your GP. A positive result does not mean you will get dementia, only that you have increased risk.

A neuroscientist’s personal fight

Driven by personal tragedy and inspired by an overwhelming desire to help people, QIMR Berghofer’s Associate Professor Anthony White has reached the threshold of his career-long goal, to find a successful treatment for dementia.

A neuroscientist before his mum developed Alzheimer’s disease, her death in 2007 galvanised his resolve to defeat this insidious disease.

“I was utterly helpless. My father would often ask if there were any new drugs coming, was there anything we could do to help. There wasn’t anything I could offer. It was incredibly painful and frustrating not being able to offer anything useful,” Associate Professor White said.

He is now confident of delivering one of the most exciting breakthroughs in dementia treatment in twenty years.

Childhood dementia

While dementia is most common in people over the age of 65 years, childhood dementia is a little-known but serious public health issue. Researchers at QIMR Berghofer believe a new study has raised hope of a potential new treatment for childhood dementia.

Batten disease is one of the most common forms of childhood dementia. It causes the progressive deterioration of brain cells and a range of severe symptoms such as a loss of the ability to walk and talk.

Associate Professor Anthony White’s team has received a $49,600 grant from the Batten Disease Support and Research Association (BDRSA) of Australia, to find drugs that can halt or slow progression of the neurological disorder.

“Childhood dementia is similar to adult dementia. It is always fatal and there are very few drug treatments available, so more research is desperately needed,” Associate Professor White said.

“We’re working to find drugs that treat Batten disease and other forms of childhood dementia. Drugs that can slow or halt the progression of disease and buy valuable time for these children and their families,” Associate Professor White said.

The QIMR Berghofer research is focused on drug repositioning – with drugs approved for other conditions, being repurposed to treat Batten disease and other childhood dementia disorders.

Professor Eske Derks and Dr Zachary Herring will use computer-based algorithms to analyse the genetics of childhood dementia and identify promising drugs for re-purposing as a potential treatment for childhood dementia.

Associate Professor White will then test the drugs on tiny model brains to validate the findings and the drugs’ impact on childhood dementia.

Dr Ineka Whiteman, Head of Research, Medical and Scientific Affairs at BDSRA said “their computer-based bioinformatics approach is a relatively novel approach in the Batten disease field. It could help make effective, desperately-needed treatments available to patients far

Emily’s Battle

For Queensland mother Jessica Lyons, the research offers hope at a time when her family is faced with a heartbreaking lack of options. Her happy, cheeky eight-year-old daughter Emily has been diagnosed with one of the rarer forms of Batten disease.

“Before we got Emily’s diagnosis, we thought it would just be a matter of finding the issue so she could receive the right treatment and go on to live a reasonably normal life,” Ms Lyons said.

“But now we know Emily isn’t going to live until she’s an adult, she isn’t going to go to university or anything like that, and accepting that is really tough. Every week she is regressing further, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do,” she said.

Reducing your risk of dementia

There are some simple activities and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your chances of dementia. What changes can you make to your current daily routine?


The more years in education, the lower the risk of dementia. Learning can also slow progression of the disease.

  • Read or listen to the radio/podcasts
  • Do crosswords, puzzles
  • Get involved in a community, sport, hobby activity


Smoking releases toxins into the body that can damage brain cells.

  • Discuss options with your GP to help with quitting
  • Make a plan to quit with quit.org.au


Sleep helps to remove toxins from the brain which is critical for maintaining healthy functioning of brain cells.

Discuss with your GP if you are having trouble sleeping

  • Regular exercise
  • Reduce caffeine and alcohol


Social isolation can lead to loss of brain cell connections because of a lack of stimulation.

  • Schedule in dates to stay in touch with family, friends and neighbours
  • Volunteer with a local community group
  • Consider adopting a pet


Inactivity reduces the generation of brain stem cells in areas of the brain responsible for memory function.

  • Move your body. Take up walking, dancing, or any enjoyable form of exercise
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables


High blood pressure can cause damage to the small blood vessels in the brain that are used for memory function.

  •  Consult your GP about your blood pressure
  • Cut back on caffeine