Throughout my work with family caregivers, a common confusion that regularly arises regarding memory loss is the belief that Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are one in the same. While it is true some people, even health care professionals, will use the terms interchangeably it is important to understand the fundamental differences between the terms so that you can truly understand what you may/may not be up against and can properly plan ahead.
Dementia is an umbrella term that is used to describe the many symptoms associated with someone who is experiencing symptoms like confusion, disorientation, forgetfulness, language problems and/or visual impairments. It is also important to know that medical conditions like a urinary tract infection, a stroke, a thyroid condition, etc. can cause dementia-like symptoms; Side effects of medication, or alcohol can also mimic dementia. There are currently at least 50 known causes for dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common causes of dementia. It is defined as an irreversible, progressive neurodegenerative disease that initially affects a person’s short-term memory and eventually progresses to affect his/her long-term memory and physical capabilities. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific disease and according to one medical model consists of three stages - Early, Middle and Late. Below is a brief summary of some of the signs you may notice in an individual with Alzheimer's disease.
Early stage Alzheimer’s disease consists of intermittent memory loss which can make
identifying a memory problem difficult especially if lack of sleep, exhaustion, depression or stress are "blamed" for the forgetfulness. Changes in personality and/or forgetting to attend a recently scheduled meeting/appointment are generally signs that something is wrong.
Middle stage Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by more forgetfulness and drastic changes in mood. Behavioral issues like wandering, paranoia, increased agitation and/or hallucinations are also common during this stage. This stage can be confusing because of the ability for an individual to remember specific details of past events while forgetting more recent occurrences.
Late stage Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a more progressive decline. The ability to remember past events becomes harder and confusion regarding people and places can become prominent. Incontinence, slurred speech and difficulty walking can also be present during this stage.
The essential thing to know about Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is they are not the same. Someone who has dementia does not necessarily have Alzheimer’s disease. One of the best questions you can ask your loved one’s medical team should they issue a dementia diagnosis is, “What is causing the dementia?” While it may be hard for the medical team to give you a definitive answer, especially during an initial evaluation, an answer or even a speculation can at the very least help you begin the process of planning ahead.
Do you have any thoughts you would like to share or questions to ask? Please do so my commenting below.
Christine M. Valentin
As a licensed clinical social worker, I help individuals caring for a loved one reduce feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. This blog is meant to share with you, many of the suggestions I recommend to many family caregivers. Sign up to receive them directly.