Most of us are familiar with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s important to know exactly what they both are, how they differ, the similarities they share and what to be aware of.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the same and if someone close to you has been diagnosed with either, understanding the difference will dramatically impact how you can support and care for them.
Dementia refers to a general term for symptoms including (but not limited to) a decline in memory or language, problem solving or other reasoning abilities too. There are different forms of dementia including vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s, frontotemporal (impaired supply of blood to the brain – may be caused by a series of small strokes) and Alzheimer’s. Each form of dementia can be triggered/caused by different factors such as age, genetics, smoking and alcohol use, atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in your arteries) or diabetes to name a few.
It comes down to changes in the brain and the way in which that change occurs. Alzheimer’s disease is an example of a condition that can cause dementia, but it is not the only potential cause.
Dementia occurs when cells in the brain change, resulting in difficulty communicating, leading to problems with thinking and other cognitive functions. It’s important to know that dementia is not a normal part of ageing.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that’s characterised by damage to the cells in the brain or significant changes to the brain. The symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease are similar to symptoms of dementia which will worsen over time. One of the most common symptoms people suffering from Alzheimer’s experience is short-term memory issues.
As a person’s Alzheimer’s gradually worsen other symptoms are also experienced including changes in behaviour, feeling disoriented and confused, and difficulty speaking or writing. Unfortunately, there is no known way to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s or any known cure.
The disease is most commonly experienced in people over the age of 65, but it is also possible for some people to be diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s at a much younger age (in their 30s or 40s).
For both dementia and Alzheimer’s age is the most common risk factor, but that’s not to say it is a regular part of ageing that can be ignored.
Genetics is also a risk factor; if you have a family history of dementia then there is a greater chance of that being passed on through your genetics, increasing your risk of experiencing these problems in later life.
It is believed there is a link between vascular problems such as strokes and heart disease, and the later development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Head injuries are also thought to increase the risk of experiencing either condition.
There are many effects associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s – as we’ve already discussed memory issues are most commonly experienced early on and should be seen as an early warning sign (this happens in the case of Alzheimer’s because the disease first impacts the part of the brain involved in learning and establishing memories).
Communication and mobility problems are common effects in people with more advanced forms of Alzheimer’s. People can start to find it difficult to maintain their balance and may also have difficulty swallowing food. As some people become confused and disoriented, it’s likely they will walk outside of areas they’re familiar with, getting lost and end up needing help to return home.
Help and Support
There is help and support out there for people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, as well as support for the family members and loved ones, including those who act as carers. The Alzheimer’s Society can help with referring people to organisations that can offer support, as well as acting as a vital resource for information and education around dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Be sure to make the most of what they offer if you’re looking for further assistance or support.
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