Whether you’re dealing with a new diagnosis or have been immersed in the world of Alzheimer’s and dementia for years, the varying terminology can get confusing. Between medications, treatments, doctors, specialists, and support groups, it’s inevitable that some information will get scrambled. Understanding the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s can help empower individuals facing a cognitive impairment disease, as well as their families and caregivers. Once you have a solid understanding of these terms, you will be better equipped to advocate for yourself or your loved one, giving you the confidence needed to make these important decisions.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a broader term used to describe diseases associated with difficulty remembering, making decisions, controlling emotions, and thinking clearly. It is essentially the umbrella term for many different cognitive decline diseases and syndromes, including Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many different types of dementia diseases including, but not limited to, frontotemporal dementia, Huntington’s disease, Korsakoff syndrome, and vascular dementia. Some patients may even develop mixed dementia, which results in the brain switching between more than one type of dementia simultaneously. The most common type of mixed dementia is a combination of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the many diseases that fit within the dementia category, accounting for 60 – 80 percent of all dementia cases. This degenerative brain disease is the result of brain cell damage, which typically impacts the part of the brain associated with learning new information first. As it is a progressive condition, the disease worsens over time. Depending on the individual and their prognosis, this disease can progress slowly over several years or rather quickly.
Symptoms for this disease can range greatly from person to person, but typically include difficulting concentrating, personality shifts, mood swings, depression, impaired judgment and decision making, general confusion, and trouble recalling information from the long-term memory. Unfortunately, at this time there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, nor any other type of dementia.
Effects of Alzheimer’s on the Brain
Part of what makes this disease so difficult is that the damage to the brain begins years before any symptoms appear. A protein called amyloid, which is considered to be the biomarker for the disease, clumps into plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. This results in the loss of connections between cells, leaving the cells to die. In some, more advanced, cases, the brain even shows signs of shrinking.
Because of the complex nature of the disease, we are not yet able to diagnose Alzheimer’s with 100 percent certainty while the patient is alive. This diagnosis can only be confirmed once the brain is examined under a microscope during the autopsy. This is why it is essential to share all information with your doctor regarding your own or your loved one’s health. Confirming the type of dementia an individual has can alter the course of treatment dramatically. Discuss all possible symptoms with your doctor, and offer complete honesty with regards to drug use, alcohol use, other prescribed medications, sleep habits, and any other personality or cognitive changes you may have noticed.
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