What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
While the two words are often used interchangeably, the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia is well worth exploring.
Dementia is a collection of symptoms which affects mental processes in a number of ways, from impaired communication to memory loss. Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is a form of brain disease responsible for those very symptoms.
But remember, there’s no reason a diagnosis should mean your loved one can’t continue to lead a fulfilling life. In fact, with the support of a live-in carer, they’ll be able to receive the round-the-clock care they need throughout the stages of dementia, all in the place they know and love.
What is dementia?
Dementia is a catch-all for a variety of symptoms that affect the brain. These may include:
Loss of memory
Impaired verbal skills
Poor hand-eye coordination
Disorientation of time and place
But while dementia describes the symptoms, it isn’t in itself the cause of them. The cause might be head injury, stroke-induced cognitive damage or brain disease, such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In short, dementia isn’t just down to old age. There is always an underlying explanation for it.
The signs and symptoms of dementia depend which parts of the brain are damaged, as well as the disease responsible. While they can all add up to something which makes the day-to-day more difficult, many people live well in the early and middle stages of dementia for years after a diagnosis.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for up to 70% of all diagnosed cases. It mainly affects the over-65s.
In Alzheimer’s disease, proteins build up in the brain and form “plaques” and “tangles”. This means the connections between nerve cells in the brain are lost, the cells themselves die and brain tissue deteriorates. Alzheimer’s disease also reduces chemical messengers in the brain, disrupting signals between cells.
Alzheimer’s generally affects the hippocampus first, which means its earliest symptoms are lapses in short-term memory. Your loved one may find it tricky to recall recent events and difficulty holding onto new information. In later stages of Alzheimer’s, they may also have difficulty following conversations, navigating obstacles and concentrating on tasks.
Alzheimer’s symptoms develop gradually, though the actual time scale varies from person to person. With time, more tissue is damaged and the symptoms become more pronounced. Of course, sometimes this brain tissue damage is just part of getting older. That’s why your loved one may need to go for further tests.
Diagnosing dementia and Alzheimer’s
If you’re concerned your elderly relative may be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the first thing you need to do is take them to visit their GP.
You may discover the signs and symptoms of dementia aren’t really dementia at all. Memory lapses can be caused by treatable conditions – an infection, for example – and a GP may be able to put your mind at ease. And if they do find evidence of brain disease, they’ll send you to other medical professionals to investigate further. This will open up all sorts of treatment, advice and support to you.
Dementia will usually be diagnosed by a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, a geriatrician or a neurologist. Your loved one will be assessed based on:
A scan of their brain
An analysis of how their day-to-day life has changed
A physical examination, including blood tests
Cognitive tests, including memory and verbal reasoning
These will help establish not only if it is indeed dementia, but also its cause – whether that’s the first stages of Alzheimer’s or something else entirely. Once this is established, the doctor will be able to give you tailored recommendations as to how to manage your circumstances best.
How do I manage dementia and Alzheimer’s?
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s symptoms, but there are a number of ways you might slow them.
At first, a doctor will likely only explore non-drug treatments. This means they’ll start by assessing your loved one’s lifestyle: how often they exercise, how well they eat, whether they drink and smoke and so on. Unhealthy lifestyles can lead to a narrowing of the arteries, which can speed up the process of cognitive decline.
Next, they’ll recommend certain activities that will keep your loved one’s mind active, from getting out and about to reading books. They may also recommend a number of different kinds of therapies, including:
Cognitive behavioural therapy, for those with depression or anxiety
Cognitive stimulation therapy, to keep your loved one’s mind active
Cognitive rehabilitation, for practical tips on how to adjust routine
Creative therapies, from life story work to music, singing and art
In the later stages of dementia, a medical professional may turn to certain drug treatments. These can help with the chemical imbalances in your elderly relative’s brain, and alleviate the difficulties they’re having with concentration, motivation and memory. The doctor may also prescribe medication for their depression, mood swings and blood pressure.
But a key part of slowing down the process is keeping your loved one in touch with the life they’ve always led. This means keeping them at home, a place full of memories. And there is one ideal way to make sure they can do just that, while getting the support they need: it’s called live-in care.
It's not just care it's also peace of mind
“It is reassuring to know that my father is being cared for by someone who understands his needs and his dementia symptoms.”
How can live-in care help with dementia and Alzheimer’s?
With live-in care, a handpicked carer moves in with your loved one to offer 24-hour support.
Your loved one will receive the one-on-one care they need to lead a fulfilling life, and you’ll have a whole lot more peace of mind. This means, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, they’ll be able to make those lifestyle changes recommended by their doctor – as well as meet a new friend who will be there when things start to get a little muddled.
Plus, because your elderly relative is able to stay in their own home, they’ll be surrounded by constant reminders of their life and family. So even as their condition progresses, they’ll still have constant triggers to keep the signs and symptoms of dementia at bay.
Of course, if your loved one is staying at home, you may need to think about making some adjustments for their safety. This could just be a case of reducing the amount of furniture about the place, adding rails for them to hold onto or installing accessible shelving units.
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