Can The Terms Dementia and Alzheimer's Be Used Interchangeably? What's the Real Difference?

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We often use the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably when talking about the progression of the disease, lifestyle habits, and memory loss in general. However, this has led to people not knowing the true difference between the terms and inappropriate use of the word dementia when talking about Alzheimer’s and aging.

So what is dementia actually?

Dementia is a catch-all phrase that is talking about cognitive decline because of damage to the brain. It is a symptom of disease, not a disease itself. Dementia can be caused by many diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Dementia is the chronic memory loss, personality changes and impaired reasoning caused by many diseases. What distinguishes dementia from just normal memory loss associated with aging is that it is a nonreversible significant decline in mental function and it must be severe enough to interfere with your daily life. So how is dementia diagnosed? A doctor must determine that you have multiple areas of cognitive decline including disorientation, disorganization, memory loss and language impairment.

An analogy that helps people understand dementia is comparing dementia to a sore throat. A sore throat is a side effect of many diseases, including allergies, a cold, strep throat, bronchitis, etc. You need to figure out exactly what is causing your sore throat to be able to effectively manage it. Dementia is the sore throat, the symptom of the disease. Alzheimer’s (or other causes) are the common cold - the disease that is causing the dementia.

Many people think that dementia is a normal part of aging, but it is not. Some memory loss is typical in adults as they age but dementia is caused by damage to the brain cells that affects your brain’s ability to communicate across cells. Dementia is progressive, meaning it starts off slowly but gradually gets worse with time. Currently, there are over 50 million people in the world living with dementia.

Where does Alzheimer’s fit into this?

Alzheimer’s is a specific disease, caused by inappropriate protein aggregation of the tau protein in the brain. It is a specific disease that slowly destroys memory, thinking skills and brain function. It is a degenerative disease that causes complex brain cell changes after cell damage from the tau protein misaggregates. A symptom of Alzheimer’s is dementia. Alzheimer’s starts off with the inability to remember new information, as it primarily affects the part of the brain associated with learning. It slowly leads into dementia and complete cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, representing about 80% of the cases but there are also other diseases that cause dementia.

What else causes dementia?

The most common causes of dementia are neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s. Other neurodegenerative diseases include Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB), Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Neurodegeneration kills brain cells and neurons over time causing a permanent decrease in mental and physical function, and often dementia. The second most common cause of dementia is cerebrovascular reasons, creating something called vascular dementia. When stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease or hardening of the blood vessels happens, the vascular damage from the hemorrhaging or blocking of the vessels causes dementia. When blood vessels are blocked it stops oxygen supply to areas of the brain causing irreversible damage and therefore dementia.

Infections also cause dementia. In late stages of severe infection there can be brain damage as the virus/bacteria destroys brain cells. This brain damage can cause dementia on occasion. Some common infections that cause dementia are HIV/AIDS and Creutzfeldt-Jackob disease (or other prion diseases). Dementia can also be caused by toxic and metabolic reasons, like a chemical imbalance in the body, drug overdose, or malnutrition. The last cause of dementia is traumatic brain injury. When there is a serious injury or concussion to the head it can cause brain damage, and may eventually lead to dementia. One final source of dementia is genetic. Although extremely rare, some types of dementia can be inherited. However, it is more likely for dementia to form because of aging complications. Once a person has reached 65, the chance of developing dementia doubles every 5 years.

It’s also not uncommon for people to have more than one factor causing their dementia. Usually a person will have just one form of dementia but you could also have dementia stemming from Alzheimer’s and vascular issues at the same time. This is called mixed dementia. Thirty percent of the time patients who have Alzheimer’s also have a vascular disease that makes dementia symptoms worse. So does this mean some types of dementia are more serious than others? Ultimately, no. All dementia is serious in it’s own way even if it may seem less aggressive or like it progresses at a different speed. All types of dementia need to be taken seriously and need medical attention.

How can you decrease your risk for dementia?

Although dementia is not treatable or reversible once you have it, there are steps you can take to try to decrease your chances of developing dementia in the first place.
1. Not Smoking - Smoking decreases blood circulation and decreased circulation to the brain causes less oxygenation and therefore brain damage. This can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Besides the decreased circulation, smoking also causes heart disease which could lead to vascular dementia in certain cases.
2. Eating Healthy - Eating a healthy diet full of brain healthy foods can greatly reduce your risk for dementia. Some particularly brain healthy foods include green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish and olive oil. Foods you should definitely avoid include red meat, butter, cheese, sweets, fried foods and processed foods. Even small changes in your diet can have significant benefit, so don’t be afraid to start small.
3. Exercising - Working out regularly is hugely important in protecting your brain health as you age. It also staves off many other diseases and complications that can happen with aging. Even just a brisk walk outside for 10 minutes a day can elevate your heart rate and increase blood flow to the brain. Vigorous exercise includes anything aerobic like spinning, swimming or running. Try to aim for 80 minutes a week of vigorous exercise.
4. Mind Stimulation - Regularly challenging your brain can increase your cognitive function and decrease your risk for dementia. Some mind stimulating activities include crossword puzzles, sudoku, cards, reading, learning a new language, playing an instrument, taking a class on anything, or even just talking with other people regularly.

Do you or your loved ones have dementia? If you are looking for a provider for live-in care in Florida with experience caring for individuals with Alzheimer's, American In-Home Care and our subsidiary brands Whitsyms In-Home Care and Advocate In-Home Care, and Douglas In-Home Care can help. We refer qualified and compassionate care providers that are matched directly with your loved one's personality and needs. We can refer care providers that specialize in Alzheimer's and dementia care, and who have training and continuing education in this area to ensure they provide the highest quality of care to your loved one, and that you and your loved one are in the best hands.

If you are looking for a care provider in Florida with experience caring for individuals who show signs of Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, American In-Home Care and our family of caring companies, Whitsyms In-Home Care, Advocate In-Home Care and Douglas In-Home Care can help. We refer qualified and compassionate care providers that are matched directly with your loved one's personality and needs. We can refer care providers that have training and continuing education in this area to ensure they provide the highest quality of care to your loved one, and that you and your loved one are in the best hands.
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