November 24, 2015

How Can You Distinguish Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?

By Duff Rardin

MD, Mission Neurology

If you’re a Baby Boomer, there’s a good chance that you’re beginning to wonder about things like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. You’re not alone if you don’t know the difference between the two, because there’s a lot of confusing and misleading information out there.

Medically, there is a distinct difference. Dementia is a broad category that refers to a set of symptoms, not a disease, where you lose cognitive skills. Alzheimer’s is a disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80 percent of dementia cases.

A little bit of memory problems is normal as we age. But, if the memory loss becomes a social or professional problem, then it starts to reach the threshold of dementia. Dementia is a problem of the brain that becomes more likely as we age. Sadly, there are millions of people who have dementia who have no idea they have it.

Usually we think of dementia as losing your memory, but it includes impairment of judgment, trouble producing and understanding speech, and not being able to do calculations in your head. Signs of dementia usually begin with small episodes of forgetfulness. Often overlooked, these symptoms include trouble keeping track of time and getting lost in familiar settings. As dementia progresses, confusion increases. In advances cases, dementia patients cannot care for themselves, and they can become depressed and aggressive toward others.

Since dementia is a deterioration of the brain, most cases cannot be reversed. Medication can help manage symptoms of dementia, including dementia brought on by Alzheimer’s.

The earlier dementia is diagnosed, the sooner treatment of the symptoms can begin. Diagnosis entails excluding other treatable problems, such as depression, hydrocephalus or vitamin B12 deficiency.

There’s no way to prevent dementia, but keeping active physically and mentally, maintaining a healthy diet, not smoking and having a low blood pressure may reduce the risk of dementia.