What is Semantic Dementia?

Sunrise  |  November 1, 2019

Most people know little about the very rare condition of semantic dementia. It refers to a variant of Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which is an uncommon type of dementia that mainly impacts the frontal and temporal lobes (or front and side parts) in the brain, mainly leading to problems with mental abilities such as behaviour and language.

As a progressive neurodegenerative condition, semantic dementia directly impacts a person’s semantic memory, meaning that the general knowledge they have picked up throughout life loses its meaning. Living with semantic dementia means that a person’s performance on task that require a knowledge of word meanings will be affected, leading to problems with word naming, word comprehension and object recognition.

This means that semantic knowledge also impairs conceptual knowledge, as visual-perceptual aspects of meaning is affected. An individual may no longer be able to use common everyday items, such as a hairbrush, or understand ‘categories’ of words such as fruits or animals.

Semantic dementia lies in stark contrast to Alzheimer’s disease, which can involve forgetting recent life experiences. Living with semantic dementia means that a person will no longer be able to recollect events, situations and past life experiences stored in their long-term memory.

Whilst dementia mostly occurs in people over the age of 65, it is important to consider that semantic dementia, and frontotemporal dementia in general, usually starts at a younger age – with most cases affecting people aged 45-65. One thing semantic dementia does have in common with many other types of dementia, however, is that symptoms usually develop slowly and worsen over a number of years.

Crucially, a person living with semantic dementia can still be able to recollect recent life events and continue to respond positively to everyday life activities and routines, particularly in familiar environments.

Whilst there is no cure for semantic dementia, there are treatments that can help to control and live comfortably with some of the symptoms, including therapies such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy for issues with movement and communication, and positive dementia activities such as memory cafes to socialise and receive support and advice.

It is useful to understand the symptoms that either you or a loved one may display if they develop semantic dementia. These symptoms can include:

  • Behaviour and personality changes, including inappropriate or impulsive behaviours
  • Difficulty with spelling
  • Language problems and issues with verbal fluency, leading to slow speech, using the wrong words or saying words in the wrong order
  • Difficulty with mental abilities, such as planning, organisation and recognising people.
  • Gradual memory problems and recognisable memory impairments.

If you think either you or a loved one may be displaying the early symptoms of semantic dementia, it is a good idea to make an appointment with a GP. A GP can run simple checks, such as memory tests, to see what is causing the symptoms and provide another perspective. This will all be the aim of reaching a formal dementia diagnosis, which will provide the best opportunity to prepare and plan for what lies ahead.

To learn more about dementia care at Sunrise, please do visit your nearest community.