The Arbor Company Senior Living Blog

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: How to Tell the Difference and What to Do

Apr 4, 2018 7:26:57 AM / Marsha Van Hook Marsha Van Hook

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Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, but it’s not the only type. Getting an accurate diagnosis can help you support your loved one, anticipate likely changes and ensure you choose the right level of care. The right diagnosis begins with a trip to a doctor you trust and usually requires a referral to a neurologist. Here’s how to understand the distinction between Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

The Funnel of Dementia

True dementia is a brain disease caused by damage to brain cells. To understand how different types of dementia progress, it can be helpful to think of dementia as a funnel. At the top of the funnel, at the earliest stages of the disease, the symptoms can be quite different between types of dementia. As the disease progresses, more and more of the brain becomes affected. In later-stage dementia, there aren’t always significant differences. Most people with dementia, regardless of the type, who live long enough will eventually need significant care.

It’s important to know that, if your loved one already has advanced dementia, getting the right diagnosis is less important than getting your loved one excellent care and support. In the earliest stages of dementia, by contrast, an accurate diagnosis can point toward better treatment while helping you plan for the future.

Download the Free Guide: Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s vs. Other Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, so it’s often the first to come to mind when a senior shows signs of dementia. Alzheimer’s usually begins in the hippocampus, which is a brain region responsible for forming new memories. So seniors with Alzheimer’s tend to have short-term memory problems first. Over time, these memory difficulties morph into more global functioning issues. Seniors may have trouble with planning and organization, driving, remembering family members, and caring for themselves.

Some other types of dementia include:

  • Primary progressive aphasia: This neurological disorder often begins earlier in life than Alzheimer’s. It manifests first as language problems, particularly with word-finding and speech. Over time, people may lose their ability to speak and develop signs of Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

  • Frontotemporal dementia: This type of dementia begins in the frontotemporal region of the brain, which affects behavior and executive function. Seniors with this form of dementia may become aggressive, angry, depressed or withdrawn, or they may otherwise behave differently than they once did. Over time, frontotemporal dementia begins to look more like Alzheimer’s.

  • Vascular dementia: Vascular dementia is due to decreased blood flow to the brain, often following a stroke. The symptoms depend on the brain region affected.

  • Korsakoff syndrome: This dementia is caused by vitamin B-1 deficiency, most commonly due to chronic alcoholism. The symptoms vary but often include memory and language issues.

  • Dementia with Lewy bodies: Lewy bodies are harmful brain deposits that can also occur in other forms of dementia. These brain deposits can change posture and movement, behavior, and memory. Over time, the symptoms look similar to Alzheimer’s.

Numerous other conditions can also cause dementia. In some people, Parkinson’s disease manifests as dementia. So it’s important to see a doctor to identify the cause and explore treatment options. Do not rely on internet diagnoses.

Is Dementia Treatable?

Rarely, another condition may mimic dementia. For example, a senior with depression might appear to have dementia. Malnutrition, a head injury or even a brain tumor can make someone appear to have dementia. In some cases, treating these illnesses can reverse dementia-like symptoms, or at least prevent them from getting worse.

Real dementia—whether due to Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia, primary progressive aphasia or another form of dementia—is a progressive illness. There are no cures. Treatment may slow the appearance of symptoms and can absolutely improve quality of life. No miracle cure or diet will reverse the progress of dementia, however, so it’s important to focus on improving well-being rather than an endless quest for a nonexistent cure.

Research is promising, and there may someday be a cure for dementia. For now, we can only take steps to manage symptoms.

Choosing Appropriate Care

A neurologist who specializes in dementia is an invaluable resource for managing the symptoms of dementia and predicting its course. Ultimately, however, most people with dementia will need intense round-the-clock care. A senior living community offers the right kind of support, maximizes opportunities for socialization and engagement, and keeps your loved one safe.

Consider a community that offers a continuum of care, so that as your loved one’s needs change, he or she can get more support. Ask lots of questions about staffing, activities, living arrangements and safety. The right community can address both daily shifts in your loved one’s needs and long-term changes in functioning.

Dementia can be challenging, but the right senior living community makes it easier for both caregivers and the people they love. If you need help or want to learn more, we’re here for you. Contact us today!

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Topics: Memory care, Dementia & Alzheimer's Disease

Marsha Van Hook

Marsha Van Hook

As the Vice President of Resident Care for The Arbor Company, Marsha is responsible for overseeing quality improvement programs that enhance care delivery and service to our residents and their families.

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