Alzheimer’s And Dementia Still Remain a Mystery In Many Ways

Health Minute

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Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are often used interchangeably because most think one means the other, but the two syndromes couldn’t be more distinct from the other, according to the National Alzheimer’s Association (NAA).

Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia, a syndrome caused by brain cell death and characterized by a loss of cognitive function that affects everyday life. Up to 60 percent of dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer’s disease, which is why so many often think the two are one in the same, says Mark Friedman, DO, a neurologist. 

“You can’t assume that dementia is always from Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Friedman. “There are many types of memory loss that are progressive, but it doesn’t mean it is necessarily due to Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s a Form Of Dementia  

Alzheimer’s and dementia remain a mystery in many ways, another reason the two similar syndromes are often mixed up in everyday conversation.

The National Institute on Aging explains the difference in the two: Dementia is a brain disorder that affects communication and the performance of daily activities while Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that specifically affects parts of the brain that control thoughts, memory, and language.

There are more than a dozen specific types of dementia disorders. Symptoms vary from person to person and the type of dementia. An early clinical symptom can be difficulty remembering recent conversations, names, or events. Apathy and depression can also be present at the beginning. Later symptoms include impaired communication, poor judgement, disorientation, confusion, behavior changes, and difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking.

A few other common forms of dementia are caused by vascular disease of the brain, some associated with Parkinson’s disease and a type called normal pressure hydrocephalus where the fluid cavities in the brain are larger than usual, Dr. Friedman says. 

“There are also other causes of memory loss that do not mean an individual has a problem with dementia,” he says. “For example, memory loss can come from a metabolic imbalance due to thyroid dysfunction and certain vitamin deficiencies, and even sometimes depression can cause memory loss that can appear similar to dementia.”

Dementia is often an age-related syndrome. About three percent of adults age 65 to 74 years, and up to 20 percent of adults between age 75 and 84 years will develop dementia. Although dementia mostly affects older adults it should not be viewed as a normal part of aging, Dr. Friedman says.

The Road To Diagnosis

Family members who suspect a loved one is exhibiting signs of dementia often find it difficult to take the first step toward an evaluation. Individuals may be scared of the diagnosis or deny they have a problem. 

“A lot of times patients are afraid of what type of diagnosis they may receive or how it will affect their quality of life,” Dr. Friedman says. “Sometimes we may involve a social worker to help patients and their families adjust to their circumstances related to memory loss.”

When traveling this road with a loved one, Dr. Friedman recommends that you keep in mind the following:

Earlier is often better. Delaying a medical evaluation out of fear only puts off effective treatment or possible reassurance that the memory loss is due to something other than dementia. It’s important to know that medication is now available that may help slow the progression of dementia.

Consult your physician. Dr. Friedman suggests families consult a family physician who is close to the patient. A family physician can provide a familiar setting to conduct an initial evaluation, which may or may not result in a referral to a neurologist.

Testing can provide answers. Today’s diagnostic tools, such as brain imaging, can help neurologists accurately diagnose what is causing memory loss. Such a targeted diagnosis can provide effective treatments and reassure families of the real cause. 

Dr. Fadi Tayim discusses brain imaging that can help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

Click play to watch the video or read video transcript.

Memory loss isn’t always permanent. Do not assume memory loss means dementia. There are many times when memory loss is due to a cause that may be reversed.

“There are actually times when all the testing comes back normal and I get the pleasure of telling patients that they have no significant memory disorder to worry about,” Dr. Friedman says. “It can be very reassuring to patients and also to their families.”

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