The Difference Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Many people (including myself) use the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably. Alzheimer’s is a disease, whereas dementia is a group of symptoms. Alzheimer’s is one of the most common causes of dementia, but there are some types of dementia that are completely unrelated to Alzheimer’s.
There are over
520,000 people in the UK with Alzheimer’s, and over 5 million in the
US. It is a physical disease that affects the brain, during the
course of which structures called ‘plaques’ and 'tangles’ form in the
brain due to the build up of protein. Connections between nerve cells
are lost, and eventually nerve cells die and brain tissue is lost.
Alzheimer’s is a
progressive disease (as time goes on, more parts of the brain are
damaged, more symptoms develop, and the symptoms are more severe).
Alzheimer’s disease has common symptoms, but it is important to
remember that everyone is unique: no two people are likely to
experience Alzheimer’s the same way.
For most people, the
earliest symptoms are memory lapses, particularly learning new
information and recalling recent events. Long-term memory is often
unaffected during the early stages of the disease.
Memory lapses can
show itself in ways such as:
- losing items
around the house (keys, glasses, etc.)
- struggling to
find the right word in a conversation
about recent conversations or events
appointments or anniversaries
- getting lost in
a familiar place or on a familiar journey
As the disease
develops, the sufferer can go on to develop problems with other
aspects of thinking, reasoning, communication, or perception:
- language –
struggling to follow a conversation or repeating themselves
skills – problems judging distance or seeing objects in three
dimensions; navigating stairs or parking the car becomes much harder
planning, organising – difficulties making decisions, solving
problems, or carrying out a sequence of tasks (e.g. cooking a meal)
- orientation –
becoming confused or losing track of the day or date
In the earlier
stages of Alzheimer’s, a person will often have changes in their
mood. They may become anxious, irritable, or depressed. Many people
become withdrawn and lose interest in activities and hobbies.
As the disease
progresses, problems with memory loss, communication, reasoning, and
orientation become more severe. The person will need more day-to-day
support, either by someone moving in with them, or by moving into a
Typical late stage
(restlessness, pacing, etc.)
- Calling out
- Disturbed sleep
- Repeating the
with everyday tasks (eating, walking, etc.)
- Lack of
awareness of what is happening around them
These behaviours can
be challenging for both the person and their carer. Eventually, the
person will need help with all their daily activities.
The speed of
progression of the disease, and the life expectancy of someone with
it, varies. On average, life expectancy is eight to ten years after
the first symptoms, though this varies, especially depending on the
age of the person when they first developed Alzheimer’s.
earliest symptoms are not memory loss. This is called atypical
Alzheimer’s, and occurs when a different part of the brain is
attacked by the plaques and tangles than usual. It accounts for 5% of
Alzheimer’s in those diagnosed over the age of 65, but is a far more
common cause for those under the age of 65.
The atypical forms
cortical atrophy (PCA) – early symptoms include problems
identifying objects or reading, even if the eyes are healthy,
uncoordination (e.g. when dressing), or problems judging distances
(e.g. when going downstairs)
aphasia – the person’s speech may become laboured with long pauses
- Frontal varient
Alzheimer’s disease – symptoms include problems with planning and
decision making, behaving in socially inappropriate ways, or not
seeming to care about the feelings of others
Who Gets Alzheimer’s?
Age is the greatest
risk factor for Alzheimer’s, with the disease mainly affecting people
over the age of 65 (the risk of developing the disease doubles
approximately every 5 years). However, early-onset Alzheimer’s
disease affects about 40,000 people in the UK under the age of 65.
For reasons that
remain unclear, twice as many women as men over 65 have Alzheimer’s,
possibly down to women living, on average, longer than men, or the
lack of the hormone oestrogen after menopause.
A member of your
family having Alzheimer’s disease does not necessarily mean you will
also develop the disease. There are a number of genes that can
increase or decrease your chances of getting the disease, but a
healthy lifestyle can also lower the chances. Taking regular physical
exercise, keeping to a healthy weight, not smoking, eating a healthy
balanced diet, and drinking only in moderation, especially from
mid-life onwards, can lower your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
Leading an active lifestyle that combines regular physical, social,
and mental activity will help lower the risk.
such as diabetes, stroke and heart problems, high blood pressure,
high cholesterol, depression, and obesity in mid-life are all known
to increase the risk.
Treatment and Support
There is currently
no cure for Alzheimer’s (although I know personally that the Physics
department at the University of St Andrews has found a possible cure
that has yet to be tested on humans), but a lot can be done via drug
and non-drug care, support, and activities to enable someone to live
well with the condition.
Talking with a
professional about their diagnosis can help. Talking therapies can
help someone who is depressed or anxious, as well as counselling.
There are drug treatments that can alleviate temporarily some
symptoms, or slow down the progression in some people.
Keeping up with
activities that they enjoy is beneficial, as well as exercising their
mind with reading/puzzles. Reminiscing about the past can also be
beneficial as the symptoms worsen. Agitation and aggression is likely
to be caused by the person being in pain, misunderstanding what is
happening, or by being frustrated or under-stimulated. Listening to
music or doing an activity that the person enjoys can help fight
Support for carers
is also important, as they are likely to find these behaviours
distressing, especially in the later stages. When writing a character
with Alzheimer’s, make sure you don’t forget about the characters
about 800,000 people in the UK. There are many similarities between
Alzheimer’s and dementia, as Alzheimer’s is a common cause of
dementia. It is a syndrome (group of related symptoms) associated
with the decline of the brain and its abilities, including:
- memory loss
- thinking speed
- mental agility
People with dementia
can become uninterested in their usual activities, and have problems
controlling their emotions. Social situations can be challenging,
losing interest in socialising, and aspects of their personality may
change. They can lose empathy for others, experience hallucinations,
or make false claims or statements. As dementia affects a person’s
mental abilities, they may find planning and organising difficult.
Maintaining their independence can also become a problem, leading to
them often needing a carer.
Other symptoms may
difficulties with tasks and activities that require concentration
- changes in
personality and mood
- periods of
finding the right words
Most types of
dementia can’t be cured, but if it is detected early there are ways
you can slow it down and maintain mental function.
Roughly 10% of
people with dementia have more than one type at the same time, and
this is called mixed dementia. The most common mix is Alzheimer’s
disease with vascular dementia (problems with blood supply to the
brain). The symptoms of this kind of mixed dementia are a mixture of
the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
information, please follow this link
starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, has a major character who
suffers from dementia. You will cry.
I will judge you if you don’t.