I often hear people referring to Alzheimer’s and Dementia as the same thing and alternating the use of the word, without fully understanding the true difference between both terms. Before I talk about the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, let’s have a quick look at the current statistics.
Approximately 47 million people are currently living with the condition worldwide and the latest WHO statistics suggest that an average 9.9 million cases of dementia are diagnosed each year.
The rapid increase in cases of dementia (it is estimated that numbers will triple by 2050) unfortunately means that we will all know someone who has been diagnosed with the disease in the near future.
The difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease is easy to understand once you know – isn’t that always the case?! Maybe your doctor didn’t give you enough time to ask questions or you needed more information, either way, I am hoping that this article will give you all the information that you need.
Dementia is NOT a normal part of ageing
First thing’s first – Dementia is not a normal part of ageing! The reason that people think that it is, is due to it being more prevalent in those over 65, i.e. ‘the elderly’. There are some studies which show that the older we get, the more at risk we are for some cognitive decline – such as not being able to divide our attention as well – for example having issues watching the television and talking on the phone simultaneously. However, the cognitive decline that happens in dementia is more all-encompassing and causes more issues than just memory loss or being able to multitasking.
What is Dementia?
It is an umbrella term for a collection of brain diseases that affects the parts of the brain that are responsible for memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to complete activities of daily living. Dementia occurs when the brain is damaged through diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease or when repeated strokes occur (Vascular Dementia). Unfortunately, right now, Dementia remains a progressive illness and there is no cure. It is important to remember that Dementia is not an illness in its own right.
Types of Dementia
There are several different causes of dementia, with the most common diagnosis being Alzheimer’s Disease. Approximately 60-70% of people who are diagnosed with Dementia, have Alzheimer’s Disease. Other forms of dementia include:
Vascular Dementia – Occurs in about 10% of people who are diagnosed and is a result of damage to the brain due to a bleed or blocked vessels which caused a stroke.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies – The third most common form of dementia. Lewy Body Dementia occurs when specific proteins group or clump together within the brain. It is normal for a person who has been diagnosed with Lewy Body to have Parkinson symptoms also.
Parkinson’s Disease – As the disease progresses, it can lead to dementia that is similar in nature to Alzheimer’s Disease or Lewy Body.
Other, less common forms of Dementia include:
Mixed Dementia – where more than one form of dementia is present. New studies suggest that this is more common than previously thought.
Weirnicke-Korsakoff Disease – a form of dementia that occurs due to a severe depletion of the vitamin Thiamine – B1. The most common cause being severe alcohol misuse. On a side note, you may notice that people you know who are alcoholics are prescribed vitamins, including various B vitamins. This is because chronic alcoholism can prevent the adequate absorption of many different vitamins, leading to longer term problems if they are not replaced.
Huntington’s Disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human form of “mad cow disease”) and frontotemporal dementia are other causes.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, with it accounting for approx 60-70% of all diagnoses. Alzheimer’s is caused when proteins build up in the brain causing structures known as ‘plaques and tangles’ to form. As a result of these plagues and tangles forming, the nerve connections within the brain begin to fail, eventually leading to nerve death and finally a loss of brain tissue. It has been identified that those with Alzheimer’s have a much lower production of the neurotransmitters acetylcholine, serotonin and norepinephrine. These chemicals assist in the transfer of messages around the brain so when there is a decrease in the production, messages either don’t travel throughout the brain (due to the nerve death and tissue loss) or they will travel at a reduced speed. Unfortunately, like dementia, Alzheimer’s is a progressive illness that currently has no cure. However, the current medications licensed in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease can help slow down the progression of the illness.
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Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Before I start to talk about the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease, I think it is important to mention that whilst there are a list of common symptoms, there are no hard and fast rules as to how the disease will affect each individual person. I have known people who have become verbally aggressive when they spent their entire lives being polite and I have known people to have no great personality change. The way that I like to think about it is that the brain is different from person to person and therefore, the way the disease will cause change, is different from person to person.
Sometimes when I am giving talks or speaking with families and the discussion moves towards what should you expect in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, a look of horror can glance across their faces when I mention things like memory loss and not being able to remember specific dates. There are a whole host of factors that go into being diagnosed with dementia and it is not good for our mental health to be over examining everything that we are doing. In fact, forgetfulness can be exacerbated through stress so it becomes a vicious cycle. One day you forget where you left your keys. You become increasingly worried and begin to question whether this is the beginning stages of dementia and the stress can end up making the forgetfulness worse.
I will always remember a doctor I worked with allaying a family member’s fears by asking him “Are there large amounts of time that you cannot remember what you were doing? Do you go shopping and not remember how you got there? If not, then the forgetfulness that you are experiencing is generally nothing we need to worry about right now”. Whilst this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and of course the most innocuous of symptoms may end of being part of a disease, it is worthwhile remembering that dementia is a lot more complex than ‘just’ memory loss.
Unfortunately, right now there is no treatment for dementia. There are treatments for some of the symptoms and there are medications which can help slow down the progression of the illness in some people, but right now there is no way of reversing or stopping the disease. This is why early diagnosis through accurate diagnostic tests is so important. If at any point you feel that you or a loved one is displaying symptoms similar to those mentioned above, it is imperative to speak with your primary care doctor as soon as possible. Swift diagnosis and early intervention can help maintain a decent quality of life in the early to middle stages of the illness.