Dementia is defined as any condition characterized by memory loss, confusion and, in some cases, personality changes. That can include Dementia with Lewy Bodies, Vascular Dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, as well as Alzheimer’s Disease.
as seen in the Courier Life Newspaper (April, 2015)
Many people assume that any older person who suffers from memory loss has Alzheimer’s disease (AD). As a senior care advisor, I often work with families who tell me about an aunt/mother/friend who has symptoms of mental confusion, forgetfulness, and cognitive impairment and assume their loved one has AD. In some cases they are correct, but in many other cases they are mistaking a different condition for AD, 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. It can include stroke, brain trauma and other diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Some dementias are characterized by steady mental deterioration, while others, such as some brain injuries, can remain stable for long periods of time. Moreover, some dementia-like conditions can be reversed if they are correctly diagnosed.
This is not to negate the seriousness and pervasiveness of AD. According to the latest 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.
Alzheimer’s Disease is only one form of dementia
A large number of people are not aware that forgetfulness is only the first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. AD is a progressive disease. In its advanced stages, individuals with Alzheimer’s disease lose their ability to communicate, to recognize family and loved ones and to care for themselves. In its later phases the disease begins to impact physical functions; a person will begin experiencing problems with balance and coordination; and in the final stages of AD, the individual will have trouble swallowing and other bodily functions will begin to shut down.
The cause of AD is 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 builds 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 totally understand how these structures impact the brain but the result causes brain cells to die.
Vascular Dementia is the a form of dementia brought on by stroke or traumatic brain injury
There are other types of dementias that begin with similar symptoms to AD but progress differently. One such condition is Vascular Dementia (VD). This is the second largest category of dementia and accounts for approximately 10% of all dementia diagnoses. VD is caused by brain injuries usually brought on by stroke or traumatic brain injury. Like AD the beginning symptoms include memory loss, impaired judgment and confusion, but VD progresses in incremental steps. Individuals with VD can remain stable for long periods of time then decline suddenly and then level off again. Like AD, there is no know cure for VD but there are preventative measures. Vascular Dementia is often caused by strokes that are brought on by high blood pressure or diabetes. If these conditions can be controlled there is less likelihood of a stroke.
Dementia with Lewy bodies includes visual hallucination
Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) 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-syncline 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 visual hallucinations. One DLB patient who chronologized the progress of his disease described waking up at night to find men standing over him. At another time he noticed a three-foot man dressed in orange standing in line with him at a movie. When he looked again, the man was gone.
Parkinson’s disease includes some memory disorders
Parkinson’s disease is another disease that can include progressive dementia. Many people identify Parkinson’s disease as a movement disorder but it also affects the brain and impairs thinking and reasoning. It is caused by deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein that degenerate nerve cells. The condition starts with tremors in the hands, fingers, feet, jaws, then cause muscle rigidity and at times dementia. In a report by Florida’s Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration, these delusions are often paranoid in nature and can manifest themselves in thinking a spouse is having an affair or that people are stealing their food or belongings.
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, the side effect of a prescription drug. If these conditions are recognized they can be treated and cured.
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.