What is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?

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When I taught the state approved course for future administrators, one of my favorite topics was the Aging Process. I would start listing all the things that everyone will experience if they live long enough. The physical changes we will experience include sagging skin, loss in height, muscle weakness, wrinkles, graying hair, changes in eyesight, hearing loss, loss of appetite, loss of teeth, slowed mobility, and the list goes on. Aging does not sound fun, or in the words of a former resident: Aging is not for wimps!

But what about the changes in memory that many people experience? There are the normal age-related memory changes that occur, such as not being able to recall one’s first grade teacher’s name. These memories have been pushed to the back of the memory line because they are not recalled often. But what if you forget the location of where you are driving toward? Is it Alzheimer’s or dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe the loss of the ability to think, remember, reason and communicate. Dementia is not a disease, but a group of symptoms or a syndrome that is caused by certain diseases, conditions or temporary illness. Here is another example: If I said I had cancer, the next question one might ask is “What type of cancer?” The same goes for dementia. If I said I had dementia, the next question should be “What type?”

An example of a temporary illness that might cause confusion in the elderly is a urinary tract infection or UTI. We would call this a reversible dementia. Once the person is treated with an antibiotic, the UTI is resolved and the confusion usually reverses itself.

How many different types of dementia are there? You may start counting and get to 5 or 10 but keep counting as there are 70-80 different types of dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease is one type of dementia. So why does it matter that we know which type of dementia the person has? Because the course the disease will take makes a difference in how it is treated and how it is dealt with. A person that has vascular dementia is often “pleasantly confused.” They may forget where the restroom is or what day it is, but they often have a slow decline and death is not going to be the result of the dementia

Alzheimer’s Disease is one disease that falls under the umbrella term of dementia. This disease has 7 stages and each stage has some very distinct symptoms of decline that a person will experience. However, not everyone experiences all stages noticeably and no two people will experience the stages in the same manner. Unfortunately, everyone who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will die from Alzheimer’s. The brain is the body’s control center and as the brain is destroyed from the disease, system failures will occur. Often the cause of death is respiratory, heart or kidney failure due to Alzheimer’s.

Another difference of Alzheimer’s from other dementias is memory loss occurs first and behaviors occur in the later stages.  The person may not remember to eat lunch in the beginning stage but by the seventh stage the person will forget how to chew or swallow food. In the beginning stages a person may forget a name, but by the later stages they do not recognize their own reflection in a mirror. In the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, a person may have difficulty in reading or writing a check which can be dismissed as poor eyesight. By the fifth stage they may accuse loved ones of stealing from them.

Coping becomes more difficult for families in the later stages because reasoning is gone. This is often the time when families begin the daunting task of navigating the assisted living options available to them. Many families try to carry the burden of dealing with a loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease who becomes fearful, paranoid, adverse to personal care and less functional. The family dynamics often change as children become more parental in assuming the responsibilities of providing safe and appropriate care for the aging parent, much to the parent’s displeasure.

At the Colony Residential Care, we understand this difficult transition phase and can help a family navigate the care needs and expectations that accompany a diagnosis of an irreversible dementia such as Alzheimer’s Disease. We invite you to learn more by calling one of our properties for more information.