What is Alzheimer’s? | Alzheimer’s Blog

It may seem like an odd question to ask, especially for someone who writes a blog about Alzheimer’s disease.

But it occurs to me that we haven’t yet taken the time to define

what Alzheimer’s actually is

As the owner of residential care facilities for the elderly, specializing in dementia care, I have spoken to numerous clients over the years who have said something to the effect of:

“Well, dad has Alzheimer’s, but not Dementia.” 

“Oh, really?” I would reply, knowing full well the unbelievable lack of knowledge that these clients displayed.

Still other times, I would hear,

“Well he has Dementia, but not Alzheimer’s.”

 

Alzheimer“Well, has he been tested for Alzheimer’s?”

 

“No.”

 

…sigh…

 

Now please don’t think that I judged these clients.  Not a chance.  They are not experts, and they are simply regurgitating the information they had been given by some professional – perhaps, sadly, a doctor.  Even most professionals do not understand the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

 

What is Dementia?

 

Simply put, Dementia is a loss of cognitive ability that is due to the physical deterioration of, or damage to, the brain.  Dementia is NOT a disease or syndrome.  Most accurately, it is a wide collection of symptoms that are due the brain’s decreased capacity.

 

dementiaThese symptoms include memory loss, confusion, aphasia (the inability to select the right words to express a thought), agitation, inappropriate behavior, and many others.

 

Such symptoms occur because the neurons in the brain, responsible for all cognitive and physical processes in the body, are destroyed, decreasing the brain’s capacity to control these processes.

 

Alzheimer’s disease happens to be the leading cause of dementia, accounting for roughly 60% of all cases.  Other causes include vascular dementia (strokes), Parkinson’s disease, prolonged substance abuse, etc.

 

Alzheimer’s Structures

 

Alzheimer’s is a disease that features two distinctive structures that form in the brain – beta amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.  When these structures form, they destroy neurons and synapses in the brain, causing dementia.

Alzh Dementia

So you see, to say that someone has Alzheimer’s but not dementia is ridiculous, because Alzheimer’s causes dementia in ALL of its victims.  And to say that someone has dementia but not Alzheimer’s would require that person to be tested for Alzheimer’s, usually with a PET scan.  Without being tested, it cannot be ruled out that a patient’s dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s, and without another diagnosis, it is likely that Alzheimer’s is, in fact, the cause.

 

You would be shocked at the amount of medical professionals, even doctors, who do not understand this distinction.

 

All too often, professionals in our industry hear the stories about the patients that were misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s, when all they really had was a urinary tract infection (which can cause dementia on a temporary basis until the infection clears).

 

Until geriatrics becomes a required field of study in medical school, these mistakes are likely to keep happening.  That is why it is so important for children of elderly parents to become educated themselves.

 

The truth is, the specific cause of dementia is not all that important when it comes to caring for dementia.  Whether a person’s memory loss is due to Alzheimer’s, a stroke, or anything else is basically irrelevant – it’s still memory loss.

Alzheim

But understanding these distinctions is critical for possible pharmaceutical intervention, and more importantly, for ultimately discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s and other diseases that cause dementia.

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