Alzheimer's Disease vs. Dementia


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Today’s episode has been handpicked by our listeners. We have gotten quite a few comments on our videos wanting to know the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia and we are going to be talking about the differences between the two and clearing up any confusion you may have. First, we are going to discuss what Alzheimer’s is and how it differs from Dementia before moving on to what dementia is and what it can look like. Now let’s move on to the rest of the show.

According to the CDC, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It is a progressive disease beginning with mild memory loss and possibly leading to loss of the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to the environment. Alzheimer’s disease involves parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language and can seriously affect a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. Age is the best-known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of all dementia cases. As the aging population rises, more and more people are being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The CDC says that in 2020, as many as 5.8 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease and this number is projected to nearly triple to 14 million people in the next forty years.

Individuals with Alzheimer’s can live for many years with the disease, but it does ultimately end with death, often due to the loss of the ability to swallow. On average, after a diagnosis is made, a person with Alzheimer’s usually lives for 4-8 years. However, someone with Alzheimer’s can live longer than that. Some have lived nearly 20 years after receiving a diagnosis.

Early diagnosis is key for this disease. The sooner a treatment plan can be started, the better. According to the CDC, researchers believe that genetics may play a role in developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, genes do not equal destiny. A healthy lifestyle may help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, make sure you inform your doctor. There are a few tests they can perform that may result in early detection.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by complex brain changes following cell damage. It leads to dementia symptoms that gradually worsen over time. The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is trouble remembering new information because the disease typically impacts the part of the brain associated with learning first.

As Alzheimer’s advances, symptoms get more severe and include disorientation, confusion, and behavioral changes. Eventually, speaking, swallowing, and walking become difficult. Currently, there is no cure for this disease, but there are a few ways to treat it. If you suspect that a loved one or yourself may have Alzheimer’s, speak with a doctor. They will be able to determine if you have the disease, what stage you are in, and the best course of action for you to take.

This episode is closely related to our recent mini-series on the Seven Stages of Alzheimer’s disease. We won’t be talking about Alzheimer’s nearly as in-depth as we have in our mini-series, so if you would like to learn more about Alzheimer’s, listen to the series on our website, our YouTube channel, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Now that we’ve covered Alzheimer’s disease, let’s move on to dementia.

According to Forbes, dementia is the umbrella term used to describe several diseases that cause changes in the brain that lead to memory loss and language and reasoning difficulties, ultimately disrupting everyday functioning.

The National Institute on Aging says that Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — to such an extent that it interferes with a person's daily life and activities. Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions, and their personalities may change. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person's functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of living.

Dementia is more common as people grow older (about one-third of all people aged 85 or older may have some form of dementia) but it is not a normal part of aging. Many people live into their 90s and beyond without any signs of dementia.

There are several different forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and a person’s symptoms can vary depending on the type. Let’s take a closer look at the 5 most common forms of dementia. As you already know, the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s.

According to Mayo Clinic, Lewy body dementia, also known as dementia with Lewy bodies, is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer's disease. Protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, develop in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory, and movement (motor control).

Lewy body dementia causes a progressive decline in mental abilities. People with Lewy body dementia might have visual hallucinations and changes in alertness and attention. Other effects include Parkinson's disease signs and symptoms such as rigid muscles, slow movement, walking difficulty, and tremors.

The third most common type is Frontotemporal dementia. According to Mayo Clinic, frontotemporal dementia is an umbrella term for a group of brain disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. These areas of the brain are generally associated with personality, behavior, and language.

In frontotemporal dementia, portions of these lobes shrink, or atrophy. Signs and symptoms vary, depending on which part of the brain is affected. Some people with frontotemporal dementia have dramatic changes in their personalities and become socially inappropriate, impulsive, or emotionally indifferent, while others lose the ability to use language properly.

Frontotemporal dementia can be misdiagnosed as a psychiatric problem or as Alzheimer's disease. But frontotemporal dementia tends to occur at a younger age than does Alzheimer's disease. Frontotemporal dementia often begins between the ages of 40 and 65 but occurs later in life as well. FTD is the cause of approximately 10% to 20% of dementia cases.

The next form of dementia is vascular dementia. According to Mayo Clinic, Vascular dementia is a general term describing problems with reasoning, planning, judgment, memory, and other thought processes caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to your brain.

You can develop vascular dementia after a stroke blocks an artery in your brain, but strokes don't always cause vascular dementia. Whether a stroke affects your thinking and reasoning depends on your stroke's severity and location. Vascular dementia can also result from other conditions that damage blood vessels and reduce circulation, depriving your brain of vital oxygen and nutrients.

Factors that increase your risk of heart disease and stroke — including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking — also raise your vascular dementia risk. Controlling these factors may help lower your chances of developing vascular dementia.

The final common form of dementia is Mixed dementia, a combination of two or more types of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, In the most common form of mixed dementia, the abnormal protein deposits associated with Alzheimer's disease coexist with blood vessel problems linked to vascular dementia. Alzheimer's brain changes also often coexist with Lewy bodies. In some cases, a person may have brain changes linked to all three conditions — Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, and Lewy body dementia.

Researchers don't know exactly how many older adults currently diagnosed with a specific type of dementia actually have mixed dementia, but autopsies indicate that the condition may be significantly more common than previously realized.

Autopsy studies play a key role in shedding light on mixed dementia because scientists can't yet measure most dementia-related brain changes in living individuals. In the most informative studies, researchers correlate each participant's cognitive health and any diagnosed problems during life with analysis of the brain after death.

According to the National Institute on Aging, researchers have also identified many other conditions that can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms. These conditions include Argyrophilic grain disease, a common, late-onset degenerative disease. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare brain disorder. Huntington's disease, an inherited, progressive brain disease. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by repeated traumatic brain injury. And HIV-associated dementia, a rare disease that occurs when the HIV virus spreads to the brain.

The overlap in symptoms of various dementias can make it difficult to get an accurate diagnosis. But a proper diagnosis is important to get the best treatment.

Now that you know the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia, let’s move on to some of the causes, risk factors, and prevention methods of dementia.

According to Forbes, one common myth many people tend to believe is that you can’t reduce your risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease or other kinds of dementia—you either get it or you don’t. In reality, adopting healthy habits can lower your risk of developing dementia, or at least delay the onset. “Healthy body, healthy mind,” says Dr. Richard Caselli, associate director and clinical core director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. “What we can control, we should control.” Though he adds that even a lifetime of healthy habits is no guarantee of protection.

Among the 12 factors that increase a person’s risk of dementia outlined in the 2020 report from the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, most are within one’s control. These include hypertension, smoking, obesity, diabetes, low social contact, excessive alcohol consumption, and being physically inactive. Risk factors that we cannot control include lack of education, traumatic brain injury, depression, hearing impairment, and exposure to air pollution.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is caused by damage to brain cells. This damage interferes with the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. When brain cells cannot communicate normally, thinking, behavior, and feelings can be affected.

The brain has many distinct regions, each of which is responsible for different functions (for example, memory, judgment, and movement). When cells in a particular region are damaged, that region cannot carry out its functions normally.

Different types of dementia are associated with particular types of brain cell damage in particular regions of the brain. For example, in Alzheimer's disease, high levels of certain proteins inside and outside brain cells make it hard for brain cells to stay healthy and to communicate with each other. The brain region called the hippocampus is the center of learning and memory in the brain, and the brain cells in this region are often the first to be damaged. That's why memory loss is often one of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's.

While most changes in the brain that cause dementia are permanent and worsen over time, thinking and memory problems caused by the following conditions may improve when the condition is treated or addressed: depression, medication side effects, excess use of alcohol, thyroid problems, and vitamin deficiencies.

In most people, the cause of dementia is unknown, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can lower your risk of developing dementia. Knowing what risk factors, you have can aid in lowering your chances of developing dementia, as well.

According to the NHS, some dementia risk factors are difficult or impossible to change, like your age, genes, and level of education. The older you are, the more likely you are to develop dementia. However, dementia is not a natural part of aging and isn’t something that you should be expecting to develop. In general, genes alone are not thought to cause dementia. However, certain genetic factors are involved with some of the less common types. Dementia usually develops because of a combination of genetic and "environmental" factors, such as smoking and a lack of regular exercise. Other risk factors such as hearing loss, untreated depression, loneliness, or social isolation, and sitting for most of the day may also contribute to your likelihood of developing dementia.

Currently, there are no proven ways to prevent dementia, but doctors have a few suggestions for prevention methods. Even though you may not be able to alter your chances of developing dementia, following these suggestions can lead to an overall healthy lifestyle and can prevent many other illnesses and health issues. According to the NHS, you may reduce your risk of dementia by eating a healthy, balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, keeping alcohol within recommended limits, stopping smoking, and keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level.

Keeping your body healthy may help reduce your risk of dementia, but you also need to keep your brain active and engaged. According to Danone Nutricia Research, the brain communicates through a vast network of billions of nerve cells. These nerve cells or neurons connect with each other via junctions called ‘synapses. Synapses allow communication between neurons and make it possible to create and recall memories.

Throughout our lives, we continually lose and re-grow these important brain connections. In a healthy brain, the number of new synapses balances the loss of old ones, allowing for a sustained net number of synapses. In a brain affected by injury or illness, such as dementia, synapses die off faster than they are created. When this happens, it becomes difficult to create and recall memories. Regularly engaging your mind may help your brain create more synapses longer. Activities like crosswords, word searches, and reading are all great ways to engage your mind. Learning new skills can also help your brain create more synapses and the repetitive information you use while learning can double as a recall exercise.

Regular physical exercise can also help you keep your mind active. Going for a few 10-minute walks a day can help increase the blood flow in your brain and in the rest of your body. Participating in social activities and maintaining regular social interaction can lower stress and depression, which can affect one’s memory. Getting enough sleep and drinking enough water can both help your ability to focus and your memory.

Mayo Clinic says that doing things like playing bridge, taking alternate routes when driving, learning to play a musical instrument, and volunteering at a local school or community organization are all great ways to help keep your brain in shape and keep memory loss at bay.

Now that we have covered the causes, risk factors, and prevention methods for dementia, last move on to the last part of today’s episode, the importance of early detection and diagnosis.

Early diagnosis of dementia is key because it allows a person with dementia to begin treatment right away and preserve their memory and overall function longer than they would be able to without early detection of the disease. Not only does early detection allows someone to start a treatment plan right away, but it also allows them the opportunity to plan for the future.

According to Queensland Health, being familiar with the signs of dementia can help people receive a diagnosis as early as possible. Early signs that a person might have dementia can include: being vague in everyday conversations, memory loss that affects day-to-day function, short term memory loss, difficulty performing everyday tasks and taking longer to do routine tasks, losing enthusiasm or interest in regular activities, difficulties in thinking or saying the right words, changes in personality or behavior, finding it difficult to follow instructions, finding it difficult to follow stories, and increased emotional unpredictability.

If you have noticed any of these signs in yourself or a loved one, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Since many of these signs are also signs of normal aging, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you think you may be experiencing the early stages of dementia. As we’ve already mentioned today, it’s better to rule out dementia now than wait for a diagnosis later in life.

If you or your loved one are having memory troubles, consider keeping a journal. Your doctor may not be able to see any issues occurring during a short visit and it can be hard to remember everything you have experienced. Keeping a journal can help you remember what you need to talk to the doctor. It can also measure the progression of any potential memory loss.

While dementia can be scary, getting a diagnosis doesn’t mean your life stops. People with dementia are still able to take care of themselves, do their jobs, and most importantly, spend time with the people they love doing things they enjoy.

Having a support group can make all the difference when living with dementia. Reach out to friends and family when you need help and accept help when offered. Keeping connected can be difficult after a diagnosis. Many people turn away from their friends and family because they are embarrassed but isolating yourself will only make things worse.

Currently, there is no cure for dementia, but there are a few treatment options that can help preserve someone’s memory and ability to function. More research is always being done on the subject. In the next few years, there very well could be a better way to treat or even stop the progression of memory loss.

The population of people living with dementia is rising and as more and more people are diagnosed, communities are coming together to support those with dementia. Communities all over the world are coming up with ways to include those with dementia and make sure they are not left out after a diagnosis. A dementia-friendly community offers residents with dementia a safe place to engage in social activities and more even into the late stages of the disease. To learn more about dementia-friendly communities and to learn how you can help make your community dementia-friendly, listen to our episode on Dementia-Friendly Communities.

Before we end the episode, let’s have a quick recap of what we’ve covered today. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, and they both result in changes in the brain that lead to memory loss and language and reasoning difficulties, ultimately disrupting everyday functioning. In both Alzheimer’s and dementia, early detection is key. Knowing the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia can help you get an early diagnosis and in turn, an early start at treating the disease and planning for the future.

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