The difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

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Do you ever walk into a room and forget why you went in there? Do you frequently misplace your keys or glasses? Those things happen to many of us as we age. You might remember where you put your glasses a little while later, or be able to retrace your steps to find where you left them — maybe on a nightstand, next to a book. Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging.

People with dementia, however, may put the item in a completely unrelated place, like in the refrigerator.

There’s a difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, although people often think they’re the same thing. Dementia is a general term — much like heart disease is a general term — that covers a variety of conditions related to diminished memory, impaired thinking, and other cognitive problems. Alzheimer’s disease is one of those specific conditions, and it also causes 60% to 80% of all cases of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Understanding Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than 6.5 million Americans over age 65, is a permanent brain disorder that affects a person’s memory, thinking, and behavior. Scientists think it may be caused by changes in the brain, including abnormal buildups of proteins known as amyloid plaques and tau tangles, often referred to as plaques and tangles. These protein buildups damage and kill the brain’s neurons, a process that usually gets worse over time.

The early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

● Changes in mood and personality

● Confusion with time and place

● Decreased or poor judgment

● Difficulty completing familiar tasks

● Memory loss that disrupts daily life

● Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps

● New problems with speaking or writing

● Trouble understanding pictures and how things are arranged or positioned

● Withdrawal from work or social activities

Eventually, Alzheimer’s can prevent people from doing simple daily tasks that used to be easy to accomplish. Even swallowing, walking, or speaking can be challenging for people with advanced Alzheimer’s.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

The best way to diagnose dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is to see a healthcare provider, preferably a neurologist who specializes in diseases of the brain and can provide the appropriate examination and order medical tests.

At your appointment, your provider will discuss any symptoms you or someone else has noticed and ask about your overall health, medications you are taking, and if there have been any recent changes in your personality or behavior.

Your provider will likely want to have your blood and urine tested, refer you for a PET (positron emission tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan of your head, and conduct simple memory and psychological tests. These tests help your provider rule out other causes of your symptoms, such as Parkinson’s disease, medication side effects, stroke, or tumors.

If you are having memory problems, it’s a good idea to see your provider about every six months to see if there are any changes in your symptoms.

Can you have dementia without having Alzheimer’s disease?

Yes. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, but there are many different types of dementia, including frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, and Lewy body dementia. Parkinson’s disease can also lead to dementia in some cases. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is another type of dementia, often caused by drinking too much alcohol over a long period of time, which can cause vitamin B1 deficiency. Each type of dementia hurts brain cells, but they also have their own group of symptoms and causes.

● Frontotemporal dementia is a type of dementia that affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which control how you speak, your behavior, and your personality. This type of dementia can cause changes in personality and behavior, including doing things on impulse, loss of interest in things, and not wanting to spend time with friends or family. It can also affect language abilities, making it difficult for the person to speak, read, or write.

● Lewy body dementia is caused by a buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain. It can cause hallucinations, changes in how alert you are, your ability to pay attention, and problems with movement and balance. Parkinson’s disease can also lead to dementia, and has similar changes in the brain as Lewy body dementia.

● Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, which can be due to a stroke, high blood pressure, or other conditions that affect the blood vessels. The symptoms of vascular dementia can be similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease, which include difficulty with coordination and balance, trouble with bladder or bowel control, and changes in vision.

Some people have a mix of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, called mixed dementia. Your provider will help determine if you or a loved one has dementia and which type it may be.

Preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

There is no exact way to prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but there are some steps you can take that may help reduce your risk. These include:

● Avoiding excess alcohol

● Eating a healthy diet

● Doing activities that stimulate the brain, such as learning new things, reading, solving puzzles, and socializing

● Not smoking

● Staying physically active

Treating dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

There is no cure for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but symptoms can be treated with certain types of medications.

Medicines are available that stop an enzyme from breaking down acetylcholine, a substance in the brain that allows nerve cells to communicate with each other. This can help prevent symptoms from getting worse, or slow the appearance of symptoms, and improve quality of life.

Some alternative therapies are also being studied, including the use of DHA and omega-3 fatty acids, but nothing has been proven to effectively treat dementia, and some therapies can be dangerous. Always speak with your provider before trying an alternative therapy.

Are you worried you or someone you know might have dementia or Alzheimer’s? Talk to your PCP about partnering with Reid Neurology Associates for additional care.

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