No matter what the cause, dementia is a debilitating condition for both the victim and their loved ones. It’s especially heartbreaking given the fact that there no cure for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Care involves making the patient as comfortable as possible through its progression. But AD and dementia are not the same thing. Let’s investigate how the two differ.
Understanding the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Mayo Clinic explains that dementia isn’t a disease like AD. Rather, it describes a group of symptoms that health conditions like Alzheimer’s and stroke. AD happens to be the most common cause. But it isn’t the only one. The factor that many share in common is some type of damage to the brain and nerve cells or neurons.
In some cases, the memory loss is reversible as is the case with nutritional deficiencies or infections. But with other causes like AD and vascular dementia, it results in permanent damage. As you may expect, this key difference may also affect how each condition progresses.
Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease
The tragic thing about AD is that an individual may have it but not know it for decades until the symptoms become obvious. Research has identified both an early and late-onset Alzheimer’s. Signs begin when a person is in their 30s with the former. The latter shows up when an individual gets to their mid-60s.
AD proceeds through distinct stages that have a number of characteristic symptoms. Forgetfulness and memory loss are early classic signs in most cases, explains a clinical review published in the British Medical Journal.
Sometimes these innocuous symptoms are dismissed. But they worsen as the disease progresses. An individual may get lost in once familiar places. The frequency of episodes increases.
During the middle stage, it becomes evident something is wrong. Patients may have difficulty recalling recent events and finding their way around their own home. Loved ones may notice behavioral changes. A victim may begin to have troubles with simple tasks such as personal care.
The late stage brings total dependency on the scene. They require more assistance as the disease escalates. Tragically, they may no longer recognize loved ones or anything familiar. Additional complications like pneumonia and infections hasten the last days, resulting in coma and death.
Progression of Dementia
Other causes of dementia will take a similar path with notable differences. In all cases, proper nutrition and prevention of secondary health conditions are vital to slow the progress. Not all diseases are curable. However, some offer the hope of reversible memory loss and restoration of cognitive function.
Vascular dementia occurs when there is damage to blood vessels due to a clot or some other stoppage of blood flow. Symptoms like confusion, memory loss, and trouble walking appear suddenly. However, it can also follow a course like AD with a gradual decline. The two conditions often occur together.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy body dementia occurs when protein deposits called Lewy bodies develop and interfere with brain function. It is also a progressive disease. Classic symptoms include visual hallucinations and REM sleep behavior disorder. Diagnosis involves identifying the characteristic signs through imaging or brain wave testing. Care consists of treating individual symptoms.
Frontotemporal dementia is an example of health condition that displays specific symptoms due to a certain area of damage in the brain. The term describes a host of disorders with similar signs. The frontal lobe, for example, controls voluntary action and social interactions. Damage in this area causes inappropriate behavior, lack of empathy, and apathy.
The temporal lobe manages visual memories and language recognition. Injury to this area causes speech and communication difficulties. It can affect both spoken and written language. These specific sets of causes and effects differentiate it from AD and other forms of dementia. Like other irreversible causes, treatment involves managing symptoms rather than curing it.
Reversible forms of dementia may appear suddenly or gradually, depending on the cause. For example, nutritional deficiencies of vitamins such as B1, B6, and B12 may take longer to become evident than an event like a subdural hematoma or poisoning. The symptoms may abate if the cause is identified and remedied.
However, the degree of damage is the deciding factor. The brain has some capacity to reinvent itself, an ability known as neuroplasticity. Some parts may take on the role of damaged areas to compensate for an injury. The process involves building new connections between nerves. That is where therapy is helpful to help the brain relearn certain tasks.
Some causes of dementia are controllable with lifestyle changes which will affect their progression. Risk factors include smoking and heavy alcohol use. Proper management of chronic health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes may also slow the onset of dementia.
The Changing Tide
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. The World Health Organization places the number of individuals with dementia worldwide at 47 million. Most research indicates a steady increase in the number of people living with dementia in any form. However, there is good news on the horizon.
A study published on the JAMA Network found that the prevalence of AD in the United States declined from 11.6 percent in 2000 to 8.8 in 2012. Scientists have observed similar trends in the UK and Scandinavia. And ongoing research offers further hope as the changing demographics point to a larger aging population.
Scientists remain unsure about what causes AD and dementia. Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors may all play a role to varying degrees. But with understanding comes a path to hope and a cure.
Alzheimer’s and dementia follow different courses in how the progression occurs. Ultimately, it is the cause of memory loss that determines what and when symptoms appear. While some conditions like AD have no cure, others like metabolic problems offer the hope of being reversible. The importance of sound brain health cannot be overestimated.