Dementia is thought of as a disease of old age. While it’s true that dementia becomes much more prevalent among older individuals, the truth is that it’s far more complex than most think. It’s also importantly not a synonym for Alzheimer’s, a condition that also impacts many individuals over the age of sixty-five. Understanding the difference between the two, means understanding a bit about both conditions and realizing that the difference between a diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s can play a major role in the future of a loved one.
What is Dementia?
Despite popular misconceptions, dementia is not a disease; rather, it is a set of symptoms. Dementia is categorized as a group of brain disorders that interfere with an individual’s ability to recall information, regulate emotions, make decisions, and even communicate. Dementia is more than simply becoming forgetful; it is a process by which an individual’s mental faculties are severely curtailed and his or her quality of life can drop precipitously. While dementia might be thought of simply as a part of aging, the truth is that it’s an incredibly serious issue that impacts millions of seniors.
Because dementia might be best categorized as a symptom, it would then make sense that it can have several root causes. A reasonable comparison, in this case, would be a headache – it’s a very real symptom that has physical signs, but one would not say that a loved one was sick with a headache. Dementia is a symptom of several possible diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. It can also be a function of physical issues with the brain, including an inability of the brain to receive a proper blood supply or the death of nerve cells in the temporal lobe.
Dementia presents in a number of different ways, depending on both the individual’s physiology and the cause of the dementia itself. Medical professionals can use the onset of dementia to determine its cause, especially when it conforms to one of several major models. Further tests on the brain, blood, and other organs can also lead doctors to determine what is causing the dementia symptoms to be aggravated. With this said, though, dementia can present differently in multiple individuals – something that further cements the status of dementia as a symptom rather than a disease or condition of its own.
Symptoms of Dementia
Symptoms of dementia typically fall into one of two categories – cognitive and psychological. Doctors typically consider dementia to be a likely factor when an individual exhibits two or more of these signs at the same time.
The cognitive symptoms of dementia include:
– Significant memory loss
– Difficulty with communication
– Difficulty performing complex tasks
– Difficulty with Coordination
Psychological symptoms include:
– Changes in personality
– Anxiety and paranoia
As one might notice, the signs of dementia can also be the signs of several other psychological and physiological illnesses. Even a diagnosis of the symptoms of dementia presents only a partial picture of what might be going on with a loved one.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is not dementia; rather, it is a cause of dementia. In fact, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in patients. It is an illness of the brain, one that causes physiological changes in the structure of the organ. Unlike dementia itself, there are very clear medical signs of what constitutes Alzheimer’s and what does not. Understanding the physiological changes behind the illness helps many to better differentiate it from ‘simple’ dementia.
The precise cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown. What scientists do know is that the disease causes damage to the brain’s cells, which in turn lead to irreversible changes in the way that the brain works. It is theorized that protein fragments called beta-amyloid play some role in blocking the communication between the brain cells – or that they are symptomatic of what does cause the lack of communication. Those who have Alzheimer’s tend to have more of this protein present in their brain, as well as an increased number of twisted tau proteins.
Alzheimer’s is generally considered a disease of old age, but that’s not necessarily always true. While the vast number of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s are over the age of sixty-five, a noticeable percentage of those between forty and fifty suffer from so-called “early onset” Alzheimer’s. This firmly places Alzheimer’s as a very different type of illness than many others that cause dementia, as the physiological causes tend to be far less confined to the process of ‘normal’ aging.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
As one might expect, some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s tend to mirror those of other types of dementia. This is because dementia itself is a symptom of the illness – those who have Alzheimer’s will necessarily show some of the same symptoms. It’s where the two diverge that makes it most obvious that Alzheimer’s is not simply a synonym for dementia.
As Alzheimer’s progresses, the severe loss of memory and many other necessities of daily living tend to be exacerbated. It is not only these cognitive issues that tend to deteriorate, though – those with Alzheimer’s also experience difficulty talking, walking, and even swallowing. It’s an incredibly serious illness that impacts far more than just one’s thought processes.
Understanding the Difference
Understanding the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s requires taking a moment to understand medical terminology. Dementia is almost always a symptom of Alzheimer’s, whereas there are many who have symptoms of dementia who do not suffer from Alzheimer’s. The gulf between the two is much more than simple semantics – one’s prognosis and future are intimately tied to where one falls between the two terms. Dementia is, ultimately, something that can lead to many different paths in terms of treatment and care. Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, requires specific types of treatment to help alleviate at least some of its symptoms.
Perhaps the starkest reminder that there is a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s comes in the form of treatment. Depending on the type of dementia, there are treatments that can slow down its effects and possibly even reverse that damage that has been done. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s – all that is possible is to manage the condition and provide individuals with the best quality of life possible. While significant amounts of work are being done to treat both, it seems that there’s still a long way to go before Alzheimer’s can be as manageable as some other types of dementia.
One thing that holds true for both Alzheimer’s and for dementia caused by other factors is that those with either affliction need a great deal of care. The loss of executive functions can be frustrating and frightening for those with dementia of any type and there comes a point at which family members may not be able to offer adequate care. It is important to secure care before things get to that point so that those with dementia or Alzheimer’s may engage in a course of care that will allow for better management of their condition.