Dementia is a set of symptoms caused by damage to brain cells.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes dementia.
Not all dementia symptoms are caused by Alzheimer’s. Getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step to better care.
A Sign that Something’s Wrong
More than 50 different medical conditions cause dementia. It can be triggered by
- Disease that attacks brain cells
- Blockage of the brain’s oxygen or nutrient supply
- Poor nutrition or dehydration
- Substance abuse or toxins
- Brain injury
- Infections of the central nervous system
What are the Symptoms?
Seniors often are forgetful. They pause to find the right word or to remember a name. They realize they had a “moment.” The word or name comes to them later.
That’s normal. Thought processes slow with age. Senior moments are not necessarily symptoms of dementia.
It’s NOT normal to forget things you’ve just learned – not remember them later – and not realize that you’ve forgotten. It’s not normal to repeat the same questions over and over, unaware that you’ve already received an answer. This sort of forgetfulness is more than a nuisance. It gets in the way of normal, everyday life.
Dementia is more than memory loss. It also involves serious difficulty with at least one other major function of the brain:
- Planning, problem solving or judgment (cognitive skills) – particularly struggling with tasks that need to be done in order, like paying bills, making meals or getting dressed
- Communicating – especially finding and using the right words (language skills)
- Attention or concentration
- Understanding what you see (visual perception)
The most troubling difficulties are with social relationships. In groups and busy surroundings, people living with dementia often become confused, anxious and agitated, or unusually quiet. They may start to avoid people, or even seem paranoid.
Alzheimer’s is the Leading Culprit
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common of the causes of dementia, especially in people over age 55.
Alzheimer’s often begins with damage to the part of the brain that affects learning. Its first symptom is short-term memory loss: trouble remembering something you just learned.
Damage to the brain occurs long before the first symptoms appear. Scientists don’t fully understand how. They think plaques and tangles play an important role. Plaques are protein fragments that build up between cells. Tangles are twisted protein strands that form inside cells.
Most people develop some plaques and tangles as they age. People with Alzheimer’s have more than usual. Scientists believe plaques and tangles block critical communication pathways between nerve cells. They “clog up the works,” interrupting the supply of oxygen and nutrients, preventing the processing and storage of information. Cells are damaged and can’t do their jobs. Eventually, they start to die.
Today, Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive disease. Someone with Alzheimer’s eventually experiences most of the dementia symptoms described above. Symptoms worsen over a period of years. Damage to the brain gradually makes speaking, walking and swallowing hard. Eventually, the body can’t perform critical mental and bodily functions.
If It’s Probably Alzheimer’s, Why Do I Need a Diagnosis?
Alzheimer’s is the most common of the causes of dementia – but it isn’t the only one.
While Alzheimer’s results in permanent, worsening damage to the brain, a few causes of dementia don’t.
[su_note note_color=”#f2fbff” class=”standout”]Early diagnosis is important because
- Some forms of dementia can be halted – or even reversed – WITH EARLY DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT.
- Doctors treat the underlying causes of dementia. Alzheimer’s is treated differently than thyroid disease, vitamin B12 deficiency or a drug reaction.
- Early diagnosis and treatment can help caregivers make people living with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and improve their quality of life.
- Early diagnosis permits a person to make plans and discuss his or her wishes while they can think clearly and communicate effectively.[/su_note]
If Not Alzheimer’s, Then What?
The following list isn’t complete, but it should be long enough to convince you to discuss any symptoms of dementia with your doctor.
Causes of memory and thinking problems that often can be slowed OR reversed with early treatment include:
- Medication side effects
- Alcohol abuse, including Korsakoff syndrome
- Metabolic disorders, including thyroid disease and vitamin deficiencies
A small percentage of medical conditions linked to dementia sometimes are slowed or reversed with early treatment. These include:
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
- Traumatic brain injury
- Slow-growing brain tumors
Medical conditions linked to irreversible, progressive dementia include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vascular dementia (Multi-infarct dementia (MID), occurring after a stroke)
- Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Frontotemporal dementia (also called Pick’s disease)
- Huntington’s disease
- Posterior cortical atrophy (PCA)
- Central nervous system infections (i.e., Cruetzfeld-Jacob disease, AIDS, syphilis)
Good Caregivers Make Great Private Eyes
You shouldn’t play doctor. But you should play detective.
Keep a list of symptoms. When do they occur?
- What were the first symptoms you noticed?
- What time of day are they worst?
- What was going on just before you noticed them?
- Were symptoms triggered by stress, changes in diet, sleep disturbances, poor health or new medications?
The more you know about dementia, the more helpful your report will be.
Reputable medical websites provide great clues. We’ve used the following as sources for this article, and we’d recommend them for further reading:
- National Institute on Aging’s “Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help”
- HelpGuide.org’s “Understanding Dementia”
- Healthline’s “What is the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?”
- Harvard Health Publications/HelpGuide.Org’s “What’s Causing Your Memory Loss?”
- Alzheimer’s Association’s “Overview of Alzheimer’s and Dementia”
- Alzheimer’s Association’s “Basics of Alzheimer’s” Brochure
[su_note note_color=”#f2fbff” class=”standout”]Ask Your Doctor
The more sudden and severe the onset of dementia symptoms, the quicker you should see a doctor. Seek advice as soon as ANY symptom interferes with normal, everyday life.
Start with a trusted internist, geriatrician or other primary care doctor. He or she should conduct a full medical exam to rule out various causes of dementia. Don’t be surprised if you’re referred to a specialist for further evaluation. That specialist might be a neurologist, a geriatric psychiatrist or a psychologist.
A skilled physician can diagnose Alzheimer’s with a high degree of accuracy. But not all are comfortable delivering upsetting news, especially without the promise of an effective treatment or cure. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, fewer than 50% of people with Alzheimer’s disease or their caregivers recall being told of their diagnosis.
If your doctor seems unable or unwilling to commit to a diagnosis – or doesn’t offer helpful suggestions for managing your daily challenges – seek a second opinion. You deserve to be fully informed as you try to understand changes, weigh your care options and plan for the future.
Early diagnosis can point you to the right resources. Valuable websites, books, help lines and support groups are just a quick click, call or drive away. They provide tips for caregivers, detailed descriptions of related medical conditions, updates on new developments and trials, referrals and opportunities for respite.
We can lend a hand, too. Just keep following this series for more useful information.
Was this a lot to absorb? You’ll like our next post – a simple info graphic reviewing the highlights: “Dementia or Alzheimer’s? Why Does It Matter?” Subscribe so you won’t miss it!