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Dementia or Alzheimer's? Understanding the Differences

21 November 2016

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As loved ones age, you may begin to notice symptoms of either dementia, Alzheimer’s or other types of mental decline. You may hear people refer to dementia and Alzheimer’s interchangeably. But if you’ve noticed behavior changes that concern you, knowing the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s can help you better understand your loved one’s needs and well-being.

What is dementia?

Often, people think dementia is a disease, but it is actually a set of symptoms that may be present in many different diseases. While it is natural for our bodies and brains to slow as we age, dementia is not a normal part of aging. Rather, it represents underlying issues in the body.

Dementia may be present because of diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, but it may also be present after brain damage caused by injury or stroke. Also, a condition called dementia with Lewy bodies is a form of progressive dementia caused by degeneration of the tissues in the brain.

People with DLB have a buildup of abnormal protein particles in their brain tissue, called Lewy bodies. Lewy bodies are also found in the brain tissue of people with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. (However, in these conditions, the Lewy bodies are generally found in different parts of the brain).Whatever the cause, it is important to consult a physician when symptoms of dementia are present.

Below are just a few of the most common effects of dementia:

  • Short-term memory difficulties.
  • Impairments to a person’s language, communication, focus or reasoning abilities.
  • Changes in mood or the development of depression.
  • Loss of interest in activities a person used to enjoy.
  • Confusion or a failing sense of direction.
  • Repetition in conversations.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is one of the most well-known and common causes of dementia, causing as many as 50 to 70 percent of all dementia cases. However, dementia is a set of symptoms, while Alzheimer’s is a separate disease that encompasses many different symptoms.

Below are a few of the most common warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  • Difficulty solving problems or completing simple tasks.
  • Losing track of times or dates, including confusion about the season or year.
  • Issues with vision and speaking.
  • Misplacing items.
  • Poor judgment or decision-making skills.
  • Withdrawal from social activities and changes in mood or personality.

Whereas some types of dementia can actually be controlled or reversed, Alzheimer’s is non-reversible, degenerative and incurable at this time. There are three stages of Alzheimer’s – mild, moderate and severe – but the time it takes to progress through the stages varies.

How to test for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

While there is no single test to prove whether a person has Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, there are tests that can help a physician make an educated diagnosis. A physician may begin by asking about family history and current lifestyle, as well as taking a patient’s vitals.

When testing for dementia or Alzheimer’s, patients may be given questionnaires to test their mental abilities. These questionnaires will assess short-term and long-term memory, attention span, concentration, language and communication skills, the ability to plan and the ability to understand questions.

Blood tests may be administered to test for overall health and help rule out any conditions that may be the root cause of the symptoms the patient is experiencing. After this, a physician may choose to proceed with a neurological exam to check for signs of brain disorders. This exam will test the reflexes, coordination, eye movement, speech and sensation of the patient.

At this time, Alzheimer’s disease cannot be officially diagnosed until after death, when the brain can be autopsied and the tissue evaluated. However, the earlier a physician is able to assess the symptoms of dementia and make an educated diagnosis of its causes, the more the patient will benefit. An early diagnosis allows patients to have more time to plan for the future, seek treatments that may slow the progression of the disease and discuss various options for care with their physician.

If you believe your loved one may be suffering from dementia or any of the diseases associated with it, it’s important for you to encourage your loved one to visit a physician right away and to provide support during this journey.