Story: Alexandra Allred
What is the difference and what are the warning signs—and why you should care.
This is one of the most commonly asked questions in regard to cognitive impairment. What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia? The answer is easy: One is a disease; the other is a syndrome. Far more complicated is the explanation: More than a dozen recognized forms of dementia with new variations and cases appear each year. What becomes more important is learning how to identify warning signs.
Dementia is a broad term attributed to a loss of cognitive function, relating to memory and other mental abilities, that impair daily living. Early signs are:
• Reclusive or anti-social behavior
• Increased confusion
• Memory loss, particularly with short-term memory (recent events)
• Change in behavior and/or personality
• Difficulty in completing everyday tasks
• Inability to follow plotlines from a favorite TV show or reading a book
• Repetition in storytelling or a need to repeat and re-repeat actions
• Compulsive behaviors, such as hoarding, drinking alcohol to excess, or overeating, etc.
While dementia is linked to a group of symptoms that wreak havoc on memory and day-to-day function, Alzheimer’s is a terminal, progressive disease. The exact cause is unknown and there is no cure. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Varying forms of dementia can appear when a person is in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, while Alzheimer’s most typically appears well after 60. Abnormal protein deposits form plague in the brain, destroying brain cells and causing brain shrinkage. This description is vastly oversimplified but this is a very complex medical issue.
Alzheimer’s is the leading form of dementia, accounting for close to 70 percent of all cases of dementia. But other forms of dementia are worth mentioning for proper diagnosis. Forgetfulness or having a “senior moment” are common aging; personality changes, repetitive and compulsive behaviors, hallucinations, and paranoia are not.
Parkinson’s disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies both are caused by protein deposits in the nerve cells, interrupting proper messaging in the brain, resulting in memory loss and confusion. Difficulty walking and trembling hands are common symptoms. In their progressed states, both can produce hallucinations.
Vascular dementia, the second-most common, causes confusion or disorientation but can lead to vision problems, even hallucinations due to lack of blood flow to the brain following a stroke or atherosclerotic disease.
Huntington’s disease and frontotemporal disease (or Pick’s disease) are genetic conditions that strike at a much earlier age, affecting speech, focus, impulse control, and physical coordination.
Normal pressure hydrocephalus, like vascular dementia, occurs inside the brain. Unlike vascular, however, the excess fluid (“water on the brain”) in the brain’s ventricles may occur by way of injury, bleeding, infection, brain tumor, or previous brain surgeries.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, labeled as a dementia, is a brain disorder caused by malnutrition and/or lack of vitamin B-1 and most commonly linked to alcoholism. Beyond the typical issues of processing information and memory lapse, an interesting note about it is that those stricken are noted to unconsciously create events in their lives to fill gaping memories.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is one of the rarest forms of dementia but likely one of the most progressive. People with this disease typically die within one year of diagnosis. Linked with mad cow disease, it affects both the memory and body, causing significant muscle stiffness and twitching.
Mixed dementia is just what it implies. A person can suffer from more than one type of dementia. The most common combination is Alzheimer’s and vascular, but many variables exist it is important to understand the early signs and be proactive.
Don’t pretend dementia isn’t there
Changes brought on by dementia can be so subtle two things happen: The person (perhaps not yet diagnosed) becomes a master at disguising his or her cognitive impairment. People of higher IQ often go undiagnosed for years. Secondly, family and friends are deluded into thinking everything is fine. The difficulty in finding the right words, constant misplacement of items, or increased agitation with any changes are red flags and call for professional help.
A World Health Organization report predicted dementia cases would triple by 2050, yet they recognize that early diagnosis, lifestyle changes, and specific proactive steps can slow the progression of the disease and, in some instances, improve cognition.
With more than 47 million people living with dementia worldwide, and an additional 10 million new cases each year, the harsh reality is dementia is here. In some manner, you will be affected by this disease, if not already, and must act.
About the author
Alexandra Allred has authored several books. Her latest is “Operation Caregivers: #LifewithDementia.” Her experience in senior and memory care comes losing both parents to dementia. For more information, visit alexandraallred.com.