It’s never easy to watch a loved one suffer through the ravages of disease. But not much can be worse for friends and family to witness than Alzheimer’s or dementia. The final stages only add to the enormous burden. In the end, a victim cannot even perform the simplest tasks of feeding themselves. It’s hard to imagine not being able to communicate during those last moments.

Differentiating Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

Loss of cognitive function is poorly understood. Often people may refer to lapses of short-term memory as “senior moments.” Dementia describes the loss of basic cognitive functioning. It is not, however, an inevitability of growing older. Rather, it includes a wide range of conditions that affect how the brain works in everyday life.

Strokes, for example, can cause dementia when parts of the brain are damaged due to loss of blood supply. Likewise, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) may also lead to a decline in cognitive function. The difference is that the latter is a progressive, degenerative condition. The actual structure of the brain changes due to the formation of protein deposits called amyloid plaques and tau tangles.

There are similar symptoms among the different causes of dementia. Everyday cognitive activities are impaired depending on where the damage has occurred. Often, specific areas of injury are identified by the types of activity affected. For example, declines in memory and learning may point to problems in the hippocampus.

How Alzheimer’s Disease Affects the Brain

The effects of Alzheimer’s disease often start long before the symptoms of the disease become noticeable. Remember, the human body including the brain has evolved mechanisms to ensure survival. It will react to contain a disease before it impacts survival. The problem is that it can breach the defenses that your body uses to try to stop it.

The brain operates through a complex series of connections between nerve cells called neurons. Researchers estimate that there are upward of 120 billion neurons in the human brain. Alzheimer’s disease begins by disrupting the connections between them. That leads to the classic initial symptoms of memory loss and forgetfulness.

The brain continues to grow and become more efficient through the development of brain connections, a concept that American psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, pioneered with his research on cognitive psychology. AD interferes with normal processing. At first, it may seem like a minor annoyance like forgetting where you left your keys. But that’s just the start.

Moderate Stage Symptoms

Damage begins in the hippocampus which is associated with primal behaviors including mood regulation. It may manifest itself in other symptoms such as communication and odd behavior changes as other parts of the brain become affected. At this point, the progression of the disease becomes clearer.

The symptoms reveal a direct correlation between specific areas of brain damage. The next stage includes even more disturbing signs. A person may be unable to recognize close friends and family members. Victims may find it difficult to perform even the most basic of everyday tasks such as playing games or dressing.

Advanced Symptoms

Later symptoms reflect the more difficult aspects of the disease. A victim may withdraw from his loved ones as it takes on more social aspects, explains Mayo Clinic. The signs may take more difficult paths such as mistrust, mood swings, and aggressiveness. That’s what makes Alzheimer’s disease such a heart-breaking condition for caretakers.

Victims may not be aware of the effects on their body and the subsequent care needs. As the disease worsens, the needs for maintenance and nursing increase. Many will need to seek the support of hospice services in the later stages of the disease. That will increase both the emotional and financial impacts of the disease.

In the more severe stages, the brain has continued to shrink and malform. Additional basic life functions become impaired. Ultimately, the body begins the process of shutting down with progressive damage. The burden for caregivers increases to cover nearly every aspect of life. Death follows soon afterward.

How Dementia Affects the Brain

Dementia that is not brought about by Alzheimer’s disease takes a different path depending on the cause. For one, the damage from a stroke is immediate due to the stoppage of blood flow. The brain must have an adequate supply of nutrients and energy in order to survive. When it stops, the result comes swift and furious.

Unlike AD, science has a better handle on the factors involved with dementia causes like stroke. Alzheimer’s disease remains a bit of an enigma. There are so many questions regarding causes, complications, and treatment. For most cases, care involves maintaining the quality of life through the final stages. Caregiver support is an essential part of the process.

Other causes of dementia include brain injury, alcoholism, and even avoidable causes such as a vitamin B12 deficiency. Each one will take a different course from a slow path to a dramatic manifestation typical with sudden injury. The conditions will share many of the same symptoms because of the defined brain functions with the area affected.

For doctors, it’s helpful since it pinpoints where damage has occurred. Task division is well-defined in the brain which helps this process. Identification of the source is an integral part of treatment. The current state of knowledge makes this possible. But the huge obstacles of treatment still remain regardless of the cause of dementia.

Hope exists because of the discovery of neuroplasticity.  Conventional wisdom has held that the brain stopped growing once you reach maturity. However, neuroscience has shown that the brain continues to evolve and grow, a process called neuroplasticity. The organ responds to the stimuli it receives by creating new connections. It offers some hope in the case of brain damage.

Brain health is vital to our existence. Diseases that target it such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia threaten both mortality and quality of life. Suffice to say that the human body can sustain damage in many other areas without fatal consequences. Injury to the brain no matter what the cause is a different story. Optimal brain health is crucial to life.

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