Dementia and Alzheimer's disease tend to be used interchangeably by the general public. Unless you have a medical background or have personal experience with the disease, many people will continue to think the same. There are key differences and similarities between Alzheimer's and dementia. There is a common misconception that severe mental decline is a normal part of aging, but it is not. Dementia is a general term that encompasses all forms of mental decline severe enough that it interferes with everyday life. Alzheimer's disease falls under the umbrella of dementia, exhibiting signs of memory loss and impaired thinking. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia.
Dementia is a more general term that refers to any condition that causes a decline in cognition related to memory loss, impaired reasoning, and lack of judgment skills. The decline affects a person to the point that they may be unable to carry on day to day tasks. Dementia by itself is not a specific disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's disease makes up 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Another form of dementia is called Vascular dementia, which is the second most common type of dementia and occurs after having a stroke. Interestingly, numerous other conditions exist which could cause the signs of dementia, which may even be reversible, depending on their root medical cause.
Dementia symptoms may vary from one person to the next. At least two of the following characteristics of mental functions must be significantly impaired for the decline to be considered dementia. This includes: problems with memory, communicating or speaking, inability to focus on things, as well as visual perception. A person with dementia will display difficulty with short-term memory, trouble paying bills, forgetting appointments, and difficulty veering off from their routine such as traveling outside of their neighborhood. Most dementia symptoms being at a slow pace and will eventually become worse over time. Dementia has seven key stages which include:
- Stage one: No Cognitive Decline - the brain still functions at normal capacity
- Stage two: Age-related memory impairment – occasional forgetfulness and lapses in memory, but still functioning well
- Stage three: Mild cognitive impairment – signs and symptoms of dementia are most clear and evident to others
- Stage four: Mild dementia - signs and symptoms of dementia are much more frequent, and everyday tasks are increasingly challenging
- Stage five: Moderate dementia – requires frequent reminders and cues to function adequately, needs ongoing supervision and support from caregivers
- Stage six: Moderately severe dementia – unaware of surroundings, increase in personality and mood changes resulting in behaviors of agitation and paranoia
- Stage seven: Severe dementia – the brain no longer is connecting and able to function with the body, inability to walk, speak, and swallow; the body is nearing death.
Having an understanding of the stages will enable a deeper sense of what to look for and what to expect as the disease progresses.
Dementia is a term used to describe the loss of mental abilities including memory and problem-solving. It is severe enough that it interferes with a person's day to day living. Although Alzheimer's disease is the most common, there are many other kinds. Vascular dementia is a result of a stroke, described as a block or reduction in blood flow to the brain where the brain no longer is receiving vital nutrients or oxygen. The symptoms can vary depending on what area of the brain is experiencing blocked blood flow. Some symptoms may include confusion, trouble speaking, vision loss, and disorientation. Because vascular dementia can be a result of a stroke, it is important to know your risk factors, which may include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other factors related to blood vessel disease. Another type of dementia is called Lewy body dementia, which experts believe is the third most common type. Research explains that this is caused by abnormal microscopic deposits that damage brain cells over time. A person with Lewy body has a decline in their mental abilities but may also have physical symptoms related to movements such as hunched posture, trouble initiating movement, shuffled gait, and rigid muscles. Often, these symptoms appear as Parkinson's disease symptoms, and can also overlap as both. Additional signs may include various degrees of confusion and alertness, acting out dreams, hallucinations, delusions, and trouble with vision. There are many other forms of dementia, which can connect and coincide with other comorbidities. Understanding the primary signs and symptoms of dementia will enable you to seek medical expertise when noticing any changes occurring.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. This disease causes problems that will interfere with daily tasks related to issues with memory, thinking, and behavior. It is a progressive disease that will get worse as it goes on. Being diagnosed with Alzheimer's is not a normal part of getting old. Risk factors do increase with age, but it is not only for people of old age. There is a rare type of Alzheimer's that affects people under the age of 65 years old, which is called early-onset Alzheimer's. It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms in order to be evaluated by your primary care physician to receive appropriate medication and treatment.
Similar to general dementia, Alzheimer's disease can be categorized into several stages. Since Alzheimer's is a form of dementia, the signs and symptoms are made up of various dementia traits and can be grouped into stages. The stages have similar signs and symptoms. The stages are: preclinical, early (mild), middle (moderate), and late (severe). During the preclinical stage, a person presents with no issues; however, it is likely that harmful changes are taking place in the brain. A person experiencing early stages may include showing a decline in thought process such as difficulty finding the right words, visual and spatial concerns, poor judgment or impaired reasoning. As the disease continues to progress to the middle stage, a person will exhibit increased signs of confusion and memory loss, which may include being unable to recognize close friends and family members accurately. In the late stage of Alzheimer's, a person loses their ability to communicate. They may show signs of weight loss, trouble swallowing and may sleep more. They will require total care as a caregiver anticipates all their needs. They may have to stay at an Alzheimer’s care facility if their primary caregiver can no longer provide adequate care.
Researchers have found that microscopic changes are taking place in the brain long before the diagnosis is even discovered. Our brain is made up of cells, and each part contributes to the way our mind and body function, such as thinking, learning, and remembering. Brain cells can process information, as well as store and communicate it. Alzheimer's disease is believed to happen when the brain cells and their individual properties are no longer running as well as they used to. As one functional part of the brain and its cell begin to breakdown, the breakdown also begins to transfer to other parts of the brain in a progression of deterioration and therefore, becomes irreversible since the cells have been destroyed.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's disease is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. A person may live for many years following their diagnosis, or as little as four to eight years. No two persons living with the disease will share identical signs and symptoms or life expectancy experiences. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but ongoing research continues. There are medications and treatments available that can aid in temporarily slowing down the progression of the disease and assist in managing behaviors.
It is important to be aware of the early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. The most common is the inability to remember newly learned information. This can be observed because the changes begin to occur in the part of the brain that affects learning. As the brain continues to be affected, additional signs and symptoms are evident. This may include overall disorientation, confusion with time and place, changes in mood and behaviors with an increase in suspicions and paranoia. In the later stages, there will also be symptoms related to the body's functioning where a person will no longer be able to walk, speak, or swallow. Signs and symptoms may not be as apparent to a person who is experiencing them; it may be more visible to caregivers or family members.
The causes of dementia and Alzheimer's disease are not fully known at this time. Experts continue to research to find causes to streamline appropriate methods of prevention. In early-onset Alzheimer's, which occurs in a person under 65 years old, genetics has a role in their diagnosis. However, late-onset Alzheimer's, which occurs in a person over 65 years old, likely has ongoing changes occurring in their brain over a series of years. This can be attributed to genetics, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Because no two people are the same, the changes in the brain and the lifestyle factors can affect each person differently. There is no cure for this progressive disease, but research is ongoing. Alzheimer's is at the top of biomedical research. Experts and researchers continue to work to reveal as many aspects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease as possible. As researchers gain further insight to this disease, it will increase focus on new treatments. There are clinical trials ongoing and potential approaches under investigation worldwide. There is no guaranteed way to ensure prevention of this disease, but by maintaining a healthy lifestyle which includes exercise, healthy eating, no smoking, and appropriate weight, this may lower your risk of other chronic conditions as you age, and may, in turn, help to prevent the different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Researchers continue to explore the correlation between an active lifestyle, socialization, and intellectual stimulation as it aligns with the prevention of the disease.
Understanding that Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia can help provide greater clarity for knowing the next steps after receiving the diagnosis. Dementia is a broad and general term, which encompasses the overall decline in memory and changes in thinking that affects everyday living. Having a core awareness of the signs and symptoms of the disease will enable you to realize when something does not seem quite right with your mental capacity. It is essential to take action in seeking medical expertise to receive a thorough assessment and evaluation of what may be the underlying causes for this decline. As a person experiencing these symptoms, or a caregiver observing the signs in a loved one, it can be a challenge to admit that there may be a problem. Educating yourself and believing that the symptoms may suggest dementia, enables you to receive an early diagnosis and will allow a person to get the maximum benefit from available medications and treatments. It will also provide an opportunity to prioritize spending quality time with your family and allow you to develop memorable keepsakes, such as writing your life story or recording a video for loved ones. Receiving a confirmed diagnosis will also enable you to plan ahead for your future. By planning, it allows you to express your wishes about financial, legal and end-of-life decisions.
Ultimately, recognizing the signs and symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s is the first step to take as you explore this disease by enabling you to subside your feelings of uncertainty and fear. Scheduling to see your primary care physician, who can perform the necessary assessments for diagnosis, can educate and assist in pointing you in the right direction. Whether you have the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of dementia, it is vital for you to know you are not alone on this journey. There are resources and support groups to guide you as the disease progresses and to provide ways to move forward with expectancy and quality of life.
About the Author:
Bobbi Jo Curty earned her Bachelor's Degree in Social Work from Eastern University in 2008. Bobbi has 10 years of experience working as a social worker in a continuing care retirement community and has helped many patients with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. She currently works as a Director of Social Services for a retirement community in Manheim, PA and oversees social workers for more than 100 community residents.
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