Seeing someone you love like a parent or grandparent experience memory loss can be crushing. However, just because someone starts having slip-ups doesn’t automatically mean they’re showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
It could, of course, be nothing. Or cognitive confusion or decline could be more of a sign of dementia ― which isn’t the same thing as Alzheimer’s, despite what many people might think. Although there’s an overlap between the two, there are some important differences to note.
Below is information on how dementia and Alzheimer’s vary, so you can help your loved ones ― or yourself ― get the right kind of treatment.
Dementia is an umbrella term for many different conditions ― including Alzheimer’s
Dementia can sum up many different brain-related conditions and should be thought of more as a syndrome rather than a disease.
“Dementia is a cognitive loss at any time of life and encompasses many diseases,” said George Perry, chief scientist of the Brain Health Consortium at the University of Texas at San Antonio and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. “It can happen at any stage of life … or because of an accident resulting in brain damage or a stroke.”
Within this group is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for more than 50 percent of dementia diagnoses, according to Elise Caccappolo, associate professor of neuropsychology and director of the Neuropsychology Service at Columbia University Medical Center. And while the causes of Alzheimer’s are a little tricky to pinpoint (more on that below), age can be a big factor.
“Over 60 percent of age-related cognitive loss in the U.S. is due to Alzheimer’s,” Perry said.
Most people won’t know for sure if they have Alzheimer’s.
What makes Alzheimer’s a difficult disease to pinpoint is the fact that the condition is only confirmed through an autopsy.
“We can diagnose it when someone is alive, but we are never completely certain until after they go to an autopsy, and we look for specific pathological changes in the brain that we can determine that they died from Alzheimer’s,” Caccappolo said.
“Major medical centers are pretty good at diagnosing it, but in other parts of the country or [when seeing] a general neurologist, the term ‘Alzheimer’s’ can be thrown around very commonly, and if someone doesn’t have it, the medication isn’t going to help, and they could be missing out on other treatments,” she added.
One of the biggest red flags that someone may have Alzheimer’s is the classic short-term memory loss. This is because Alzheimer’s manifests itself in the area of the brain responsible for learning new information and making new memories, Caccappolo said. This explains why someone with Alzheimer’s can likely remember what they ordered on their first date with their spouse 50 years ago, but has trouble remembering where they put their glasses (or that they even now need glasses).
Other types of dementia typically develop differently than Alzheimer’s
Next to Alzheimer’s, there are three types of dementia that Caccappolo and Perry say are the most common. These include vascular dementia, which is when someone experiences a stroke or diabetes that results in a lack of oxygen to the brain; frontotemporal dementia, a condition that typically affects people ages 60 and up, where a protein that’s similar to Alzheimer’s leads to nerve cell loss in the brain; and Lewy body dementia, where protein deposits develop in the areas of the brain responsible for motor skills and memories.
All of these diseases have different symptoms, but overall there may be instances of severe mood swings, personality changes and a major decline in cognitive and motor skills. Anything from absorbing information to getting dressed in the morning takes longer and is more tedious to handle. Perry added that in severe cases, such as with Lewy body dementia, patients may even experience hallucinations.
Risk Factors For Dementia And Alzheimer’s
A bit of an unsettling aspect to dementia and Alzheimer’s both is that there’s no real cursor as to who is more susceptible than others to develop a dementia-related disease.
“Most of these diseases are sporadic, they have no obvious genetic cause,” Perry said. Some people may have genetic inheritance ― and typically those cases are the early onset version of the disease ― but just because someone in your family had Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean you’re going to have it too.
“If your grandmother had it in her 40s then you might be more concerned and do genetic testing, but if she had it over the age of 65 you may have an increased risk, but it’s really small,” he said.
Perry does stress that Alzheimer’s is more prevalent in women, most likely because women tend to live longer than men. “Alzheimer’s prevalence doubles every five years after the age 60,” he said.
It’s been debated if alcohol consumption can cause any form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, but Caccappolo said there’s no reason to believe this is fully true.
“We don’t diagnose dementia from alcohol frequently, and it’s not a known cause. It makes other things worse, but it’s rare people get dementia just from alcohol abuse,” she said.
However, lifestyle factors generally can play a pretty big role, Perry said. Healthy habits, including a good diet and proper exercise, are crucial to curbing your risk for and treating Alzheimer’s and other dementias.