I was recently asked “what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?” Alzheimer’s disease is actually a type of dementia, like McIntosh is a type of apple. WebMD defines dementia as

“the loss of mental functions, such as thinking, memory, and reasoning, that is severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily life. Dementia is not a disease itself, but rather a group of symptoms that may accompany certain diseases or conditions” (http://www.webmd.com/brain/types-dementia).

There are about 50 different “diseases or conditions” that can cause dementia symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most prevalent, and certainly the one that you hear about most often. Other conditions or diseases that cause dementia include strokes (vascular dementia), Parkinson’s disease, Lewy Body Dementia, alcoholism, and traumatic brain injuries, to name just few. There are some causes of dementia that may be reversible. These include dementia caused by tumors, metabolic disorders such as B12 deficiancy, hypothyroidism, and normal pressure hydrocephalus. If someone is experienceing symptoms of dementia, getting a good medical evalution is critical to rule out the possiblity that the condition could be something treatable.

There are often similarities in the presentation of dementia symptoms, but each disease has it’s own set of unique features. A doctor is often able to rule out certain causes based on the specific symptoms that a patient is having. For example (very oversimplified), if a person presents to a doctor with a complaint of memory loss and difficulty walking that has started fairly recently, the doctor may be able to rule out Alzheimer’s diease, as typically trouble walking occurs much later than the onset of memory loss in that disease. Again, getting a thorough medical evaluation is really important. A doctor may not be able to diagnose with 100% certainty, but he or she should be able to rule out some of the possiblities and give a likely diagnosis.

Knowing what is causing the dementia symptoms can directly affect the course of treatment. It can also help predict the course of the disease. Most of the diseases that cause dementia are not curable, however, there are some treatments available that may slow the progression of the disease or mitigate some of the symptoms. Knowing what is causing the dementia can help the doctor determine what treatments might be most successful. It can also help you as the caergiver understand some of the behaviors and develop strategies to deal with them.

Any diagnosis of dementia is life altering, but having as much information as possible can help you to cope with the disease and its symptoms. Talk with your doctor, share changes and symptoms, and ask questions. Read more on the internet (reliable sites like www.alz.org, or WebMD) or in books, seek out events aimed toward caregivers, and talk to others. Support groups offer an excellent way to learn from both peers and experts.

This disease can make you feel very powerless, but knowledge is power. Get all that you can. Christina Forbes, LGSW from the Daybreak Newsletter 5/2011