4 Facts You Need to Know About Dementia and Alzheimer’s
One of the biggest concerns for older adults is cognitive issues such as dementia and Alzheimer's. But there's a lot of confusion around the differences between the two.
These terms are frequently used interchangeably but in fact, although connected, dementia and Alzheimer’s are completely different things. One is a symptom, while another is a disease. One is reversible, and one is not. One has over 50different types while the other has only 4.
Sound confusing? Let’s go over both in detail and explain the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s, the stages of Alzheimer’s and its risk factors, and what you can do to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
#1: Dementia is a symptom. Alzheimer’s is a disease.
A Brief Explanation of Dementia
First, let’s clarify the technical definitions between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (which we will shorten to Alzheimer’s)
Dementia is a general term for a collection of symptoms that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Some of the symptoms of dementia can be:
Having issues with memory and recall
Having issues with planning
Having trouble forming thoughts and thinking
Having problems carrying out tasks
You’ll feel like you have symptoms of dementia if all of a sudden, the things you used to take for granted such as finding your way home from the grocery store without thinking doesn’t happen as easily anymore.
Dementia is a syndrome that encompasses many symptoms which can be caused by over 50 different diseases, Alzheimer’s being one of these diseases.
An Overview of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease and causes 60-70% of dementia cases.
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alzheimer’s is characterized by certain pathological markers in the brain such as “a large number of amyloid plaques surrounded by neurons containing neurofibrillary tangles, vascular damage from extensive plaque deposition, and neuronal cell loss.”
In a nutshell, dementia is a symptom and an umbrella term that describes what is happening to a person. Alzheimer’s is a disease under the dementia umbrella.
An early sign of Alzheimer’s is trouble remembering new information as the disease usually attacks the part of the brain associated with learning.
Are there medications that can help with dementi`a and Alzheimer’s?
For some diseases that cause dementia, there are certain medications that can help those with symptoms of dementia live with the disease and manage it.
There are drugs for Alzheimer’s disease that can help the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but it is not reversible.
A point we’d like to make is that if you (or a loved one) might be experiencing symptoms of dementia but don’t seek professional medical help to understand why these symptoms are happening, the issues will only get worse over time.
Delaying a trip to the doctor’s office puts you at a disadvantage. Getting an early diagnosis allows one to have early intervention and live more independently (or with a little help from in-home care services) before you transition to the later stages of the disease.
If you feel like something is wrong and you may need assistance, it’s important to get a diagnosis with a medical professional, usually a neurologist, who will determine whether or not dementia or Alzheimer’s is occurring as well as the current progression
Can you reverse dementia or Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, and unfortunately, is not reversible. However, dementia on the other hand, may be.It is important to note that Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. If you are experiencing dementia symptoms and go to the doctor to be tested, there is a possibility your symptoms can be reversed.
As an example, perhaps you start having issues with remembering things. You go to the doctor and he finds that you have fluid in the brain, which can be removed through a fluid draining procedure. In this case, the dementia can be reversed as the cause of the dementia symptoms were relieved.
Another common case of reversible dementia is dementia in nursing home patients. Sometimes, patients are admitted because they have fallen and injured themselves. They then went for 2-3 days without food, water, or care and were found by a neighbor.
Such shock and trauma can cause temporary dementia where they don’t know where they are, what came before they fell, or why they’re in the hospital. However, when they end up in a nursing home and are provided 3 meals a day with medication, it’s possible to see some of that dementia (such as problems with memory and thinking) improve.
Again, dementia is a symptom of an underlying issue and may be reversible after seeking professional medical help. Getting a diagnosis is the best course of action.
Alzheimer's and Dementia Recap
Dementia is a general term for a collection of symptoms that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia.
Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. It is a progressive brain disease and is not reversible.
#2: Alzheimer’s is classified in 3 stages, and it’s important to get an early diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently, and as a result, it’s difficult to place a person in a specific stage of a disease. However, there are 3 general stages people refer to when classifying Alzheimer’s: early, middle, and late. In a medical context, you may hear these stages referred to as mild, moderate, and severe.
Early (Mild Stage) Alzheimer’s Symptoms
During the Early or Mild Stage, the individual can function independently but may have memory lapses and problems with concentration. You may also notice difficulties in performing tasks and remembering new information.
Early Stage Alzheimer’s is very hard to detect..You may think you don’t need assistance yet, but you find yourself forgetting things you usually remember. It’s common for people to think, “Something’s not right here,” but stay in denial at this stage and refuse to seek medical help
Many people end up ‘bypassing’ this stage until they reach the middle stage when it becomes apparent that they need assistance. It’s important to see a healthcare provider early on so they can detect problems in memory and concentration and provide early intervention.
Middle (Moderate Stage) Alzheimer’s Symptoms
Middle or Moderate Stage Alzheimer’s is typically the longest stage and can last for many years.
Damage to the brain cells can make it difficult to express thoughts and complete tasks, which can lead to frustration and anger.
You may notice the individual having confusion with words, changes in personality and behavior, forgetfulness of events and personal history, and changes in sleep patterns. They start swearing more or are constantly angry. New behaviors start forming and/or existing ones get worse. Communication becomes more difficult and behaviors are worse than before. Forgetfulness in this stage can also lead to dangerous situations and may require in-home care assistance.
In this stage, doing less and having more assistance will be beneficial. Oftentimes, the individual is angry because they know something is not right and can’t do anything about it. It is challenging to care for a loved one in this stage. If you care for an individual in the middle stage of Alzheimer’s, it’s okay to take a break and seek assistance or support.
Late (Severe Stage) Alzheimer’s Symptoms
In the final stage of the disease, the individual will be unable to hold a conversation, control their movements, or respond to the environment around them. Cognitive skills, that is their memory, thinking, and reasoning skills, continue to decline. This can lead to severe personality changes and need for around-the-clock care.
The Alzheimer’s Association recommends engagement with the individual living with Alzheimer’s through gentle touch or relaxing music.
At this stage, the unpaid caregiver (spouse or adult child) will require assistance. In-home care services such as Visiting Angels can provide 24-hour care for loved ones in this late stage of Alzheimer’s. These agencies can also provide companion care so the individual can age in place in the comfort of their home or in hospice.
#3: Genetics, family history, and age all play a risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Pop quiz time: what is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease?
B. Family history
If you guessed age, you’re correct. However, genetics and family history can play a large part in contributing to Alzheimer’s. Although Alzheimer’s is not a part of normal aging, age is the greatest risk factor of the disease.
There are more people who are over the age of 65 who have disease. After age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. After age 85, thirty-two percent of people will be living with Alzheimer’s.
According to the NIH, there are certain genes that are associated with Alzheimer’s that bring on the disease. A blood test can identify if you have these genes, but the results cannot predict whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s. You can consult your doctor if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s or related brain diseases.
Which population is at higher risk for Alzheimer’s?
A 2010 study by the Alzheimer’s Association shows interesting data between ethnicity and the development of Alzheimer’s.
According to the data, Hispanics are about 1.5 times as likely as whites to develop Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
African Americans are about twice as likely to develop the disease as whites.
However, the relationship of ethnicity to the development of Alzheimer’s is complex and not fully understood as other socioeconomic and demographic factors can be taken into consideration.
A study done in 2016 showed that almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. This may be contributed to the longevity of women vs. men, but it is important to keep these stats in mind as you consider your own risk in developing Alzheimer’s for early prevention.
Risk Factors Recap
Age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s. An individual’s risk for developing the disease increases at age 65.
Family history is also a known risk factor-- having a parent or sibling with the disease increases an individual’s risk.
Hispanics, African Americans, and women are at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s.
#4: You can prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, but you cannot reverse it.
You can’t change your age, genes, and family history, but you can change your lifestyle. Just like you can prevent your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure by eating right and exercising, you can do the same to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Keep Your Brain Active
If there’s one thing you can do for your brain, it’s physical activity and exercise. The increase in blood flow is really what keeps the brain going.
Did you know that 15% of the blood that flows through every heartbeat goes to the brain? If you have a blockage that prevents blood from traveling to the brain and allowing it to do what it needs to do, then you may find diminished brain activity.
Social engagement is also important to keep your brain active. Cognitive activities like brain games can help. The Alzheimer’s Store sells many physical games that your loved one can play with. There are many apps you can find on your phone and even on the web such as Lumosity and Peak that offer daily thinking challenges to improve your brain activity. Learning something new like a language or a skill engages the brain as well.
What You Eat Matters
Studies show that the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) can improve brain function as well. A study done in 2015 by the American Academy of Neurology showed that older adults who consistently adhered to the Meditteranean diet alone showed less brain atrophy.
Another study in 2018 followed 923 people, ages 58 to 98 years, for 4.5 years and had them adhere to the MIND diet. Their results showed a reduction in Alzheimer’s risk and slower cognitive decline..
There are a lot of things we don’t understand about Alzheimer’s disease, but we advocate having a healthy brain and a healthy body because we believe your brain and body are all connected together.
Wrapping it Up
Navigating through dementia and Alzheimer’s can be difficult. If you or a loved one are concerned about memory, thinking or concentration, start by seeing your general practitioner or a neurologist. Make sure it’s someone you believe you are compatible with as you’ll be working with them for a long time tr uncovering new symptoms and stages in the progression of this disease.
Anyone over 65 years old and is Medicare eligible can actually get a wellness visit from a General Practitioner and can request a memory screening. Just as the GP does wellness tests like weight and blood pressure, they can also test your memory. Some in-home care agencies in your area such as Visiting Angels/Silver Spring also do memory screenings for free.
Remember, dementia is a symptom of an underlying issue. Alzheimer's is a disease that causes dementia. If you have trouble with remembering things or focusing, schedule a visit with a medical professional to determine the cause.
And in the meantime, eat healthy and exercise. Try the MIND diet and schedule a 30-minute walk everyday to keep the blood flowing to your brain. The healthier your brain, the less risk there is of developing brain diseases.
If you need assistance caring for a loved one that has Alzheimer's or dementia, Visiting Angels has caregivers specially trained in memory loss care. Give us a call at (301)355-6578 to see how we can help.
For more information on Alzheimer’s, visit the Alzheimer’s Association or call their 24/7 Helpline at (800) 272-3900.