By Lisa Marinelli Smith
When someone has trouble recalling events, remembering words or finding objects, we worry they may be showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease – or we might say they have dementia.
Which term is correct?
The answer could be both. Although many people throw around the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease” interchangeably, dementia refers to an overall category of diseases that affect memory and cognitive ability. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
What is dementia?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 8 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term used when people experience memory loss, language difficulties, problem-solving challenges or other changes in their ability to think and process that affects their daily life. Experiencing memory loss alone doesn’t mean someone has dementia.
Dementia occurs when healthy nerve cells or neurons in the brain stop working, don’t communicate effectively with other brain cells and die. Many people assume dementia is a normal part of aging, but it isn’t. Normal aging can bring about slower processing speeds and difficulty multitasking, but routine memory, skills and knowledge can remain stable.
Early signs of dementia
Dementia can lead to a range of symptoms, including
- Challenges keeping track of time and completing everyday tasks
- Changes in mood
- Difficulty problem solving and concentrating
- Loss of coordination
- Memory loss and forgetfulness
- Repetition of questions/statements
These symptoms will get worse over time. Often a spouse or friend recognizes memory loss before the person affected realizes it.
Causes of dementia
The causes of dementia vary, depending on the types of brain changes taking place. When neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cause dementia, the conditions get progressively worse over time and can’t be reversed.
However, some issues that can cause dementia can be treated, such as:
- Excess alcohol use
- Medication side effects
- Thyroid problems
- Vitamin deficiencies
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative, irreversible brain disease and is the most common type of dementia. In most cases, symptoms appear after age 60, and the risk increases with age. According to the National Institutes on Aging, more than 5.5 million Americans have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Signs of Alzheimer’s disease
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is trouble remembering new information since the disease typically affects the part of the brain associated with learning first. Many early signs of dementia overlap with Alzheimer’s symptoms.
During the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, people may:
- Be less able to recognize family or friends
- Experience different sleeping patterns
- Feel moody, paranoid or compulsive
- Forget events or personal histories, such as their high school or college
- Forget their address or phone number
- Have trouble picking out the proper attire to wear
- Wander or get lost
- Withdraw from social or mentally challenging situations
In later stages, people with Alzheimer’s disease will require around-the-clock care because they can no longer manage their personal needs. They may also have problems communicating, walking, sitting and swallowing.
Causes of Alzheimer’s disease
For people with Alzheimer’s disease, the brain begins to change a decade or so before they experience memory and other cognitive problems.
Abnormal deposits of proteins form plaque that builds up in the spaces between nerve cells in the brain. Tangles of twisted fibers from another protein also build up in the brain. These changes prevent neurons from communicating with each other. When these connections are lost, the cells begin to die. The brain shrinks in advanced Alzheimer’s cases.
This destruction and death of nerve cells cause memory problems, personality changes, and other Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
How are dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
Doctors use a range of tests to diagnose dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. These include a physical exam, neurological exam, lab tests and cognitive tests.
Brain imaging from MRIs and CT scans assist with the diagnosis. Doctors may also order an EEG to look for clinical signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. An EEG, short for electroencephalogram, measures electrical activity in the brain and gives doctors information about how the brain functions.