Understanding the Difference
Dementia vs. Normal Age-Related Memory Loss
Many people believe dementia is the same as senility. However, losing mental functioning is not just a symptom of growing older.
It’s normal to experience some memory loss as we age, but normal memory loss doesn’t impact daily life in a meaningful way. For example, it’s normal to forget someone’s name, what you went into the kitchen to get, or whose call you’re supposed to return, but forgetfulness doesn’t:
- Disrupt your normal routine
- Affect your ability to complete daily tasks
- Make it difficult for you to learn and remember new things
- Reflect an underlying medical condition that can cause memory problems
In contrast, dementia and Alzheimer’s go beyond forgetting names and where you put your keys. It affects how you are able to live your life. It:
- Becomes difficult to stick to your daily routine
- Makes it hard for you to learn new things
- Makes it difficult for you to complete familiar tasks
Causes, Symptoms & Treatments
Types of Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease
Dementia occurs when the portions of the brain devoted to memory, learning, language, and decision-making are affected by disease or physical damage. Treatment can lessen the symptoms of dementia, but many causes of the condition cannot be cured.
If your family member suffers from dementia, it’s important to understand the underlying causes, symptoms, and potential treatments. Here’s what you need to know about the various types of dementia so you can decide which supportive care options are best for your family.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for as many as 80% of cases. The disease is marked by the damage and death of nerve cells in the brain. It is a progressive disease, with symptoms worsening over several years. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death among Americans.
Early symptoms include memory problems, depression, and apathy, with later symptoms that include:
- Poor judgment
- Problems with speaking
- Behavioral changes
- Impaired communication
No cure exists for Alzheimer’s. However, research continues, and treatments are available to slow the progression of symptoms and improve quality of life.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is a rare, fatal brain disorder that affects humans and other mammals. Mad Cow Disease is a form of CJD that occurs in cattle and occasionally has been transmitted to people. The disorder causes prion protein – found throughout the body – to misfold, resulting in a domino effect of damage to the brain.
Facts to know about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease include:
- It occurs in approximately one in one million people globally each year
- Symptoms include rapid deterioration of coordination and memory, behavioral changes, depression, twitching, and involuntary movements
- A familial variant of the disease, involving inherited genetic changes, accounts for up to 15% of cases
Dementia With Lewy Bodies
Lewy bodies are aberrant groups of a protein that can develop in the brain’s cortex, leading to dementia. The Lewy bodies themselves can cause dementia and can also be present during other brain changes that cause different types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.
Dementia with Lewy bodies is the third-leading cause of dementia and accounts for up to one-quarter of cases. Lewy bodies can be present in other brain disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms include:
- Problems with thinking
- Memory loss
- Sleep disturbances and violently acting out dreams
- Gait imbalance or slowness
- Visual hallucinations
Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
Frontotemporal dementia, also referred to as frontal lobe disorder, causes damage to nerve cells in the brain, resulting in loss of function. Frontotemporal deterioration can be caused by several different dementia variations, including primary progressive aphasia, corticobasal degeneration, and Pick’s Disease.
People with FTD frequently show symptoms around age 60, which is younger than other types of dementia. It has several variants, including a behavior variant that results in prominent personality changes in things like judgment and empathy. Symptoms include behavioral and personality changes, as well as trouble with language.
Huntington’s disease is a hereditary, progressive brain disorder that often appears during middle age. Over a decade or more, the disease causes nerve cells in the brain to deteriorate, impacting the mind, body, and emotions.
Early symptoms may include:
- Minor coordination and balance issues
- Uncontrolled fidgeting
- Difficulty thinking through situations
Middle- and late-stage symptoms include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty speaking
- Frequent falling
- Emotional changes
Eventually, individuals with Huntington’s disease lose the ability to walk and speak, which causes them to become dependent on caregivers.
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
Mild Cognitive Impairment represents a transitional stage between normal, age-related cognitive decline and dementia. An individual with MCI may notice a slight deterioration of mental functioning and memory, and family members and friends may also observe a change.
However, degradation of function typically is not severe enough to interfere with daily life. MCI may increase the risk of later development of dementia due to neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.
- Trouble keeping a train of thought
- Feeling overwhelmed when making decisions and planning
Symptoms can be inconsistent, progressing in some cases, while in others, symptoms may remain stable or even improve over time.
Mixed dementia occurs when an individual has brain abnormalities linked to more than one form of dementia. The condition often has characteristics of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s, but it can also include conditions present in other variations, including dementia with Lewy bodies.
Brain changes related to mixed dementia cannot be assessed in living individuals. However, scientists are learning more through autopsy studies and believe the condition may be more common than previously thought. One study found that individuals who met the criteria for Alzheimer’s also had evidence of one or more additional types of dementia.
Symptoms can vary depending on specific brain changes, but they are often similar to those of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH)
A buildup of cerebrospinal fluid inside the hollow chambers in the brain causes normal pressure hydrocephalus. The condition is referred to as “normal pressure” because spinal taps often fail to show abnormal pressure despite the presence of the fluid. However, the enlarging brain chambers can damage nearby tissue, causing NPH symptoms. In some cases, a surgeon can correct the condition by draining the excess fluid.
- Deteriorated thinking
- Trouble walking
- Loss of bladder control
Doctors often use brain imaging, such as MRIs, to help diagnose the condition in individuals who are in their 60s and 70s.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
Parkinson’s disease dementia is a type of dementia that eventually develops in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. The condition is the result of deep-brain changes that affect nerve cells, so it is similar to dementia with Lewy bodies.
Individuals who have Parkinson’s disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies may also display changes that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms include:
- Muffled speaking
- Memory and judgment changes
- Paranoid ideas
- Sleep problems
Posterior Cortical Atrophy
Deterioration of vision is a primary result of posterior cortical atrophy, a rare, degenerative disorder of the nervous system and brain. The condition eventually causes decreases in cognitive abilities and memory, and it may be associated with Lewy body dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other brain-related conditions.
Symptoms vary but can include:
- Problems with visual tasks, including judging distance, reading, and differentiating between stationary and moving objects
- Difficulty identifying and using everyday objects
- Memory issues that occur in later stages of the disease
Misdiagnosis is common due to the varied presentation and perception of vision symptoms as physical problems with the eyes.
Vascular dementia can occur as the result of strokes that block blood vessels in the brain, leading to symptoms that can begin suddenly. The restricted blood flow that results from a stroke can cause damage to cells throughout the body, especially to the network of blood vessels in the brain. Multiple, small strokes can result in thinking problems that begin subtly but become worse as cumulative damage mounts.
Symptoms can include:
- Problems with understanding speech or speaking
- Loss of vision
Memory loss may occur, depending on the specific areas of the brain affected by reduced blood flow.
Korsakoff dementia is caused by a thiamine (vitamin B-1) deficiency. This type of dementia is linked to prolonged alcohol misuse and other conditions, like anorexia, weight-loss surgery, fasting, and AIDs.
Korsakoff syndrome can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms often resemble those linked to head injury, withdrawal, and intoxication. Symptoms include difficulty learning new information or struggling to recall events.
Challenges with Thinking, Memory & Behavior
Symptoms of Dementia
The signs and symptoms of dementia can vary significantly depending on the form of the disorder. However, dementia typically involves problems with:
- Focus and attention
- Language and communication
- Judgment and reasoning
- Visual perception
Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, causes severe challenges with thinking, memory, and behavior. Symptoms usually begin slowly and worsen over time.
Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that progresses slowly and often begins long before symptoms become noticeable. Eventually, symptoms become severe enough to interfere with or halt the ability to engage in normal daily tasks. Trouble remembering conversations can signal the presence of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. In addition, difficulty recalling events, actions, and names are early clinical signs of the disease. Early symptoms also include depression and apathy.
As the disease progresses, an individual may experience:
- Disorientation and confusion
- Trouble speaking and walking
- Behavioral changes
- Reduced communication
- Poor judgment
Diagnosis for Dementia
Evaluation by a medical professional may determine if a treatable medical condition is behind dementia symptoms. Early diagnosis can provide the opportunity to benefit from all current treatments, including participation in studies and clinical trials when appropriate.
No individual test can detect the presence of dementia. Medical professionals diagnose dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, with:
- Physical exams
- A variety of lab tests
- A review of the patient’s medical history
- Observation of changes in thinking and functioning associated with the different forms of dementia
Based on symptoms and other factors, a doctor may be able to diagnose dementia, but they may not be able to diagnose a specific form of the condition. In some cases, a specialist, like a neurologist, may assist in the diagnosis.
Dementia Treatment & Care
With treatment, certain conditions that cause dementia can be improved. Conditions that can be improved with dementia care include:
- Problems with the thyroid
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Side effects of medication
- Alcohol abuse
The memory and thinking problems associated with these underlying causes of dementia may also get better. If you or a family member are experiencing changes in your thinking, memory, or behavior, it’s important to seek treatment from a medical professional as quickly as possible to determine if the condition can be reversed or if it’s a condition that will worsen over time.
Treatment depends on the specific form of dementia and its cause. Some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, are progressive and cannot be cured; treatment then relies on slowing the progression or lessening symptoms in a dementia care facility.
Understanding Risk Factors
Risk & Prevention
Age and genetics are two significant risk factors for dementia that cannot be altered. Cardiovascular function can also play a significant role in the development of dementia. Damage to blood vessels throughout the body can damage vessels in the brain as well, which can rob brain cells of nourishment and oxygen. Changes in the brain’s blood vessels have a link to vascular dementia.
New research continues to uncover additional types of risk along with methods for preventing the disorder. Getting regular physical exercise may help reduce the risk of developing some forms of dementia. Research has suggested that exercise may provide direct benefit to brain cells by improving oxygen and blood flow to the brain.
In addition, what you eat may have a significant impact on the health of your brain. Current medical guidelines recommend a heart-healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, which is low in red meat and includes plenty of:
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
- Fish and shellfish
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to understand the complexity of dementia, but you aren’t alone. At Varenita™, we pride ourselves on understanding the aging process and sharing our knowledge, even if you aren’t actively looking for a memory care community in California or Georgia.
Contact us today and share your questions with a member of our supportive staff. We can help you understand the type of dementia you’re dealing with and how to increase the quality of life for yourself or your loved one.