Is Dementia Not the Same as Alzheimer’s Disease?

Everyone has heard of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Many believe that Alzheimer’s and dementia are one and the same. Others believe there is a difference between the two. The fact is there are different kinds of dementia, although Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

Dementia

Dementia is the term used to express a condition where brain cells are gradually destroyed, resulting in a slow and progressive decline in mental capacity. Dementia can be difficult to diagnose in its early days, particularly as memory loss can be a normal part of the aging process.

Doctors usually carry out physical exams and use the results of behavioral assessments and their experience to determine the type of dementia a patient is experiencing. A diagnosis can only be confirmed by a rare brain biopsy, or after death.

Symptoms of Dementia

People will experience dementia in different ways, depending on its cause and how fast it progresses, however, the main symptoms include:

Memory loss: Although long-term memory often remains quite good, dementia sufferers may forget things that have happened that day, forget the way home, or continuously repeat conversations.

Problems with communication: Those with dementia will often describe how something works, rather than actually naming the item, as they can struggle to find the right words.

Mood changes: Those with dementia can be unhappy, angry or frightened because of what is happening.

As dementia progresses, it can become more difficult for individuals to carry out their daily living tasks, becoming reliant on others.

Causes/Types of Dementia

  • Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia where deposits of beta-amyloid protein (which forms plaques) and twisted fibers of tau protein (which forms tangles) develop in the brain. This process starts in the temporal region of the brain (in the hippocampus) leading to the development of memory problems. As the disease progresses, its symptoms include difficulties with comprehension, language, orientation, spatial, and reasoning.

  • Vascular Dementia

The second most prevalent form of dementia is vascular dementia. It can be triggered by a single major stroke, or by a series of small strokes blocking small blood vessels. In that second case, individual damages following each small stroke may not be recognizable at first but only when combined over time. The symptoms vary and are dependent on which areas of the brain are affected.

  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies

This kind of dementia results from abnormal deposits of protein (i.e. Lewy bodies) developing inside the brain cells. Patients demonstrate symptoms similar to the ones observed with Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory and thinking issues. They also show movement symptoms (such as shakiness, stiff muscles, etc) representative of Parkinson’s disease. Other symptoms may include visual hallucinations and Rapid Eye Movement sleep disorders such as acting out dreams.

  • Parkinson’s Disease

This disease affects speech and motor skills. Such movement disorder is caused by the loss of dopaminergic brain cells. As the disease progresses, dementia can be experienced by a small number of sufferers, who will also develop difficulty with memory and abstract thinking.

  • Frontotemporal Dementia

This rare form of dementia is the result of damage to the frontal and temporal, or front and side, areas of the brain. Damage can be caused by several abnormalities such as Pick’s disease. Major symptoms include a change in personality, social ability and planning as well as decreased inhibitions, possible repetitive compulsive behaviors and a lack of judgment.

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

A lack of vitamin B1 or thiamine in the brain is the cause of this syndrome. It results from long-term alcoholism and/or serious malnutrition. Since thiamine helps produce the energy required by the brain cells to function properly, its deficiency can cause cells damage and death. The first step of the disease is Wernicke encephalopathy and the second step is Korsakoff psychosis. Symptoms may include significant memory loss, amnesia, shakiness and confabulations. If diagnosed early, treatment with high doses of thiamin can reverse some of the damage.

  • Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD)

This disease is very rare. It is caused by the transformation of the prion protein that becomes abnormal and damages brain cells. The affected individual usually dies within a year. The first symptom is fast acting dementia including memory loss, hallucinations and personality changes, along with mobility issues in some cases.

References

Last reviewed 26/Feb/2014

 

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