Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s
Has one doctor told you that your aging parent has “dementia” while another has referred to the same condition as “Alzheimer’s”? If this experience has thoroughly confused you, you’re in the right place.
First, let me define dementia…
“Dementia” refers to a large cluster of symptoms
The symptoms of dementia include: short-term memory loss, poor judgment and difficulty performing familiar tasks. These symptoms are not just part of aging and are not normal. On the contrary, they are cause for concern.
If you or a family member is experiencing symptoms of dementia, the next question is this: What the heck is causing them?
This is where the primary care provider comes in. Assuming that alcohol or drug abuse is not the culprit, she/he can begin running tests to get at the cause.
These tests are important. Why?
Because some dementia symptoms are reversible and treatable (this is often the case when they’re caused by a vitamin deficiency or depression).
Determining the cause of dementia
The doctor will most likely test blood first. Some doctors will also perform a mini-mental status exam. Scans of the brain may, or may not, come later depending upon what the less invasive tests find.
The #1 cause of dementia
When the symptoms of dementia can’t be explained by a reversible cause, testing turns to the three most common (and irreversible) causes of dementia. The first among these is Alzheimer’s disease which is believed to be responsible for as much as 70% of all dementia.
If the doctor believes Alzheimer’s disease is the cause, the official diagnosis would be Dementia of the Alzheimer’s type. Often, she/he will refer to it as Alzheimer’s. (Alzheimer’s disease can only be confirmed with a brain autopsy).
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s
So the doctor is using the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” interchangeably and it’s confusing to you or your aging parent? There is no harm in saying something like:
Hey Doc, when you say ‘dementia’, do you mean ‘dementia of the Alzheimer’s type’, or do you think something other than Alzheimer’s disease may be causing the dementia?”
The #2 cause of dementia
The second most common cause of dementia accounting for roughly 30% of all cases is high blood pressure. Well, actually it’s high blood pressure and high cholesterol with some extra help provided by diabetes.
The official diagnosis given to the kind of dementia that is caused by high blood pressure and it’s good friends high cholesterol and diabetes is called Vascular Dementia or Multi-Infarct Dementia.
Understanding Vascular Dementia also known as Multi-Infarct Dementia
To have a brain in tiptop shape, blood needs to flow smoothly to and from it. This is what makes high blood pressure (i.e. hypertension), high cholesterol and diabetes so bad. Each one in its own special way, plays a part in making it difficult for blood to flow.
Not unlike the hair that may get stuck in your bathtub drain, fat and other nasty particles can get stuck in your arteries. Over time, this can make it tough for the blood (like the water) to flow smoothly. The more gunk in there, the more likely that a full-on blockage or interruption in the blood flow will occur. When this happens it’s called an infarction. Dementia can result from one too many infarctions…
One significant difference between Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia
Depending upon the stage of Alzheimer’s a person is in, medications such as Aricept and Namenda may be used to delay the progression of symptoms. Those with Vascular Dementia can sometimes slow the decline by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and getting better control over diabetes.
Lastly, and this is very important, much of the research suggests that good overall health can actually protect the brain against developing Alzheimer’s and, of course, Vascular Dementia.
The #3 cause of dementia
The third most common cause of dementia is Parkinson’s Disease. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that everyone who has Parkinson’s Disease will develop dementia, but some people do. However, this kind of dementia typically develops during later stages of the illness.
If it is determined that Parkinson’s Disease is the cause of the dementia in your aging parent, the official diagnosis would be: Dementia Due to Parkinson’s Disease.
Next step: Read more about Alzheimer’s