Often dementia and Alzheimer’s are referred to interchangeably. However, they describe two very different conditions. Dementia refers to a decline in mental ability that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. It represents a group of symptoms that are the result of many different diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Dementia is often referred to as an umbrella term, as several conditions can cause dementia symptoms. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, with about 60-80% of dementia patients having Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The World Health Organization says that 47.5 million people around the world are currently living with dementia. Dementia is not a normal part of aging. Damage to brain cells is what causes dementia, impacting the ability to communicate, causing changes in thinking, behavior, and feelings. It is a diagnosis that encompasses several disorders that cause chronic memory loss, personality changes, or impaired reasoning. A doctor must find that you have more than two areas of cognitive function in decline. These areas include disorientation, disorganization, language impairment, and memory loss. To make that diagnosis, a doctor typically administers several cognitive and neuropsychological tests. These tests assess memory, problem-solving, language skills, and other abilities related to mental function.
Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions, and their personalities may change. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend entirely on others for necessary activities of living. While Alzheimer’s is the most common disease that results in dementia, others include Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia. Conditions like Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s can also result in dementia symptoms.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by cell and nerve damage in the brain. It leads to dementia symptoms that gradually worsen over time. Though most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 200,000 Americans under 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
It is a specific disease that slowly and irreversibly destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually, Alzheimer’s takes away the ability to carry out even the simplest of tasks. Alzheimer’s is the result of two abnormal structures in the brain called plaques and tangles, that damage and kill nerve cells. Studies show that most people develop plaques and tangles as they age; however, those with Alzheimer’s tend to produce far more, in predictable patterns that affect areas important for memory. Experts believe these plaques and tangles play a role in blocking communication to nerve cells and disrupting the processes cells need for survival. It’s the destruction of these nerve cells that cause memory failure, personality changes, and other symptoms characterized by Alzheimer’s disease.
There is no cure or definitive testing for Alzheimer’s; doctors must rely on observation and elimination to make a preliminary diagnosis. This testing proves to be accurate 85 to 90 percent of the time, according to the Mayo Clinic. A firm diagnosis is only possible through post-mortem examination. While no cure for Alzheimer’s exists, there are several advancements in treatment that can delay the progression of the disease and help those with Alzheimer’s retain memory and thinking skills.