by Karen D. Sullivan, Ph.D, ABPP
What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?
Dementia is a general term for a group of symptoms that cause mental decline. By definition, symptoms of dementia always include changes in three areas: cognitive (short-term memory loss, trouble with word-finding, disorganization), behavior (decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities or irritability) and everyday functioning (forgetting to take medications or manage a checkbook).
Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells that reduces or stops communication between other brain cells. More than 50 different diseases cause the damage to brain cells that lead to dementia, with the most common being Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy Body dementia and vascular dementia, which is caused by strokes or a series of mini-strokes. So, you can have dementia and not have Alzheimer’s disease but, you cannot have Alzheimer’s disease and not have dementia.
Is dementia a normal part of aging?
No. While advancing age is the highest risk factor for developing dementia, it is not a normal part of aging. Scientists began to realize that dementia is not an expected part of aging (previously called “Old Timers”) and is caused by different brain diseases. Normal age-related memory loss is relatively mild and most often results in trouble remembering names rapidly and multitasking as effectively as you once did. Plenty of older adults live well into their 90s with no memory symptoms.
How does dementia get diagnosed?
Neuropsychologists can accurately diagnose dementia symptoms in about 90 percent of people. We use three main tools to make a diagnosis: a detailed review of medical history; interview with the person and loved ones; and paper and pencil cognitive testing.
Cognitive testing is comprehensive, usually taking about two to three hours. Quick screening tests are simply not sensitive enough and often lead to false results. With hundreds of different causes of dementia, an accurate diagnosis is essential, because it tells us what treatments will best help the person. If you know someone who appears to be losing mental abilities to a degree that interferes with daily activities, talking with the person’s primary care physician is a great start.
Is there a cure for dementia?
Treatment for dementia depends on its cause. There are some dementias that can be reversed, like those caused by a vitamin or hormone deficiency. In the case of most progressive dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure, but there are medications that slow the symptoms at both early and moderate stages. These medications work best the earlier someone starts to take them, so having someone evaluated promptly by a qualified professional is critical to get the best short- and long-term outcome. In addition to medications, neuropsychologists offer many other types of recommendations to improve brain health, independence and quality of life to people with dementia and their caregivers.
How can I help someone with dementia?
Staying in touch with friends who may have dementia can be the most powerful thing you do, as they can become socially isolated, which surely makes the experience of having dementia worse.
Dr. Sullivan, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com.