Many people assume that if an older person starts showing signs of memory loss that they are in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). In some cases they are correct, but in many cases they are misidentifying the condition and in the process doing their loved one a disservice.
AD is only one of many conditions included in the broad category called dementia.
Dementia is defined as any condition characterized by memory loss, confusion and in some cases, personality changes. Dementia can be the result of a stroke, brain trauma and diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Some dementias are characterized by steady mental deterioration, while others, can remain stable for long periods of time. Moreover, some dementia-like conditions can be reversed if they are correctly diagnosed.
Many forms of dementia begin with symptoms similar to AD but can progress differently. AD is a progressive disease. It begins by affecting the memory, then goes on to destroy other brain functions. In the mid stages of the disease, a person begins to lose his ability to communicate, recognize family, and to handle objects like a fork or spoon. In the final stages the individual loses the ability to balance, has trouble swallowing and finally stops breathing.
Vascular Dementia (VD) is the second largest category of dementia and accounts for approximately 10% of all dementia diagnoses. VD is often caused by strokes, diabetes, or traumatic brain injuries. The symptoms start with memory loss, impaired judgment and confusion but can progress more slowly than Alzheimer’s disease. VD victims often remain stable for long periods then decline suddenly and level off again. Like AD, there is no know cure, but the condition can sometimes be controlled by reducing the likelihood of a stroke.
Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is another condition that is often confused with AD. It is considered the third most pervasive form of dementia and like AD and VD there is no known cure. Lewy bodies are abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-syncleine that form in the cortex of the brain and cause memory loss and thinking problems. Unlike AD, people with DLB often exhibit early signs of muscle rigidity and vivid hallucinations. Some patients visualize aliens or monsters standing near them then vanishing.
Parkinson’s disease (PD) can include progressive dementia. Many people identify PD as a movement disorder but it also affects the brain and impairs thinking and reasoning. It can include delusions accompanied by paranoia such as assuming a spouse is having an affair or is stealing their food or belongings. Like Dementia with Lewy Bodies, PD is caused by deposits of alpha-synuclein that degenerate nerve cells. The condition starts with tremors in the hands, fingers, feet, jaws, then causes muscle rigidity and at times dementia.
There are some conditions that mimic dementia-like symptoms, but can be reversed if diagnosed correctly. Dehydration can cause a person to become disoriented and confused. In this instance, insuring the individual drinks plenty of water and other fluids can reverse the dementia. Other conditions that create mental confusion are vitamin deficiencies, urinary track infections and in some cases, and the side effects of some prescription drugs. If these conditions are recognized they can be treated and cured.
This is not to negate the seriousness and pervasiveness of AD. According to 2015 statistics published by the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.3 million Americans have AD, and the number is increasing. Scientists predict that with baby boomers reaching their 60s and 70s, the number of people with AD will grow to 7.1 million by 2025.
The cause of AD is still unknown and there is no known cure. The disease starts with small changes to the brain. Two abnormal structures called plagues and tangles are the primary culprits in the decay. Plagues are deposits of protein fragments called beta-amyloid that build up in the brain between the cells. Tangles are twisted fibers of a protein called tau that builds up inside the cells. Scientists do not understand how these structures impact the brain but the result causes brain cells to die.
All of these examples indicate the importance of identifying the causes of mental changes and the urgency of getting the condition diagnosed as early as possible. The difference between a progressive mental condition and a reversible one can make all the difference in a loved one’s life.