Dementia is a common disease often seen in older people. Affecting memory and cognition, the various types of this condition mean there can be confusion. Alzheimer’s, for example, is often mistaken as being the same as dementia. This guide aims to provide clarity in defining the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
This guide will cover the following:
- What is Dementia?
- What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
- What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
- How does Alzheimer’s develop?
- Why do you get dementia?
- What are the signs distinguishing dementia vs Alzheimer’s?
- How is Alzheimer’s treated?
- What does Dementia care look like?
- How do I find a live-in caregiver?
- How we can help
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of neurological diseases that are characterised by a loss of memory, language and other thinking abilities that are considerably severe enough to interfere with everyday functioning. Behaviour and emotions can also be affected by someone with dementia. There are over 200 types of dementia with Alzheimer’s Disease being the most common. Other common types of dementia include Vascular Dementia, Lewy-body Disease, Fronto-temporal Dementia and Huntington’s Disease.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia and it is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, meaning that symptoms worsen with time. It is thought to be a result of an abnormal build-up of amyloid and tau proteins in brain cells which can affect brain functioning. The area of the brain most commonly affected by Alzheimer’s Disease is the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is critical for learning and laying-down new memories.
This is why people with Alzheimer’s Disease can have difficulties with memory, particularly memory for recent events. Longer-term memory is usually better preserved as a different part of the brain is involved with these memories and this brain region is usually more protected in Alzheimer’s Disease. Another part of the brain that is often implicated in Alzheimer’s Disease is the very front part of the brain that deals with lots of different functions, one being our ability to inhibit behaviour and manage emotions. This can often result in people with Alzheimer’s Disease acting in ways which may seem strange. Since it is a progressive disease, symptoms continue to worsen with time, as more of the brain becomes affected. In someone with late Alzheimer’s Disease, their brain will be seen as atrophied on brain scans, which means that the brain has shrunk due to brain cell death in certain regions.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia that we see but there are as many as 50 different other causes of dementia, including other diseases, infections, and environmental factors.
The cause of Alzheimer’s Disease is not entirely known. There is no one answer to explain why someone develops Alzheimer’s; however, it is thought that living a healthier lifestyle, one that is good for your heart as well as your brain, can be protective against developing Alzheimer’s. For instance, eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, engaging in social activities, and actively using the brain can be a protective factor; however, even in people who do all these things, dementia may still be a risk. This is because scientists think that there are probably multiple factors involved with the development of the disease such as genetics, lifestyle, and environment.
There is a form of Alzheimer’s Disease that is thought to be hereditary and therefore is caused by genes passed down through generations, however, this type of Alzheimer’s is more uncommon and usually has an early-onset of around 40-50 years old. Most people with Alzheimer’s will have the idiopathic type, meaning that the disease has an unknown cause or a mechanism of apparent spontaneous origin. Often the onset for this type of dementia isn’t until later on in life, after about 65 years old. The risk for Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, such that 1 in 14 people are affected over the age of 65 but this goes up to 1 in 6 people after age 80.
How Does Alzheimer’s develop?
Alzheimer’s Disease can develop slowly, with symptoms not always being entirely obvious at first. It is thought that the onset of the disease and damage to the brain can begin 10 years before any noticeable memory and other cognitive problems appear. Dementia signs and symptoms will begin as mild, usually with memory difficulties apparent and some confusion with everyday tasks that used to be carried out with ease. Often it is difficult to detect any problems if the person suffering remains in their usual routine, it can be more evident when they are taken out of their usual environment and here confusion can be more apparent. Some behaviour and personality changes can occur at this stage. Dementia signs and symptoms progress to moderate with more areas of the brain being affected. This often affects language, reasoning, sensory processing, and conscious thought. Memory loss and confusion grow worse, and people begin to have problems recognizing family and friends. In the severe stages of Alzheimer’s people are completely dependent on care and the person may be in bed most days as the body shuts down.
Why do you get dementia?
There is no one reason why someone might get dementia. There are likely multiple factors involved such as genetics, lifestyle and environment. There is an increase in risk for developing dementia as we age, and dementia signs may begin to show. This might be due to other factors associated with ageing such as higher blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, changes to nerve cells, loss of sex hormones, weakening of the body’s natural repair systems and changes to the immune system. Dementia occurs when brain cells are damaged and this may happen as a result of a disease such as Alzheimer’s but it may also happen from a traumatic brain injury or an infection of the brain.
What are the signs distinguishing Dementia vs Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s Disease is a type of dementia and therefore it can share similarities with other types of dementias but dementia is not a disease in itself. Dementia causes include different diseases that affect the brain and result in the decline in thinking ability. Alzheimer’s is one type of dementia with some specific signs that can help Doctors distinguish it from other types of dementias, however this is difficult given the overlap of symptoms amongst dementia diseases. Cognitive testing (assessment of thinking ability) and Neurological investigations can help identify the areas of cognition and parts of the brain that are most likely affected.
For instance, Alzheimer’s Disease is more commonly known to affect the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory. Therefore, patients with Alzheimer’s commonly struggle with memory and also word-finding and problem-solving. They may also lose awareness of the difficulties they are having. Other types of dementia diseases may show a different profile and brain scans may reveal different parts of the brain to be more affected. For instance, with Lewy-body Dementias, such as Parkinson’s Disease, symptoms often include visual hallucinations, muscle rigidity and sleep disturbances. Quite often, as we age, we experience a natural decline in our thinking skills which can cause people to worry that they have dementia. Often this is not the case but since it is difficult, even for healthcare professionals to diagnose dementias, it is important that if you or a loved one are experiencing changes to your mood, memory, thinking skills or language that you seek advice from a medical professional.
How is Alzheimer’s treated?
Alzheimer’s Disease has no known cure, meaning that there is no disease-modifying treatment available. Some medications can be taken to help treat symptoms temporarily. These medications include Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors that help increase levels of acetylcholine, a substance in the brain that helps nerve cells communicate with each other. The three main AChE inhibitors that are prescribed are called Donepezil, Galantamine and Rivastigmine. Memantine is another type of medication given, usually for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s Disease. Other medications may be used to help treat the behavioural symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Cognitive rehabilitation may also be used to help with functional tasks. This type of treatment can help build on skills that people still have in order to help them function better in their everyday life.
What does Dementia care look like?
Dementia support and Alzheimer’s support in the early stages will look similar to other elderly care, with support helping the individual carry out everyday tasks and chores that they are less able to do independently. However, for progressive dementias such as Alzheimer’s Disease, this support will need to be increased and adapted more frequently as dementia symptoms worsen. A carer may need to be more specialised in managing challenging behaviour, disorientation and personality changes in dementia care. The carer will need to be familiar with helping someone who may have no awareness into their condition and therefore can be a danger to themselves.
The benefits of having a professional live-in carer over placing the person with dementia in a care home are:
- The person with dementia can remain in the security of their own home; a familiar environment that can be helpful in reducing their disorientation and distress.
- Friends and family will be able to come and go and visit as easily as before.
- Their own home is a place where they have happy memories, which is comforting to those living with Dementia.
- If they do struggle to sleep, there is someone there just to look after them, on a one to one basis.
- Daily routines can be better established or maintained, which is helpful for those with dementia because they often function better with routine and structure.
To find out more, please see our detailed guide on caring for someone with dementia: Guide to Caring for Someone with Dementia.
How do I find a live-in carer?
There are two main ways in which people find live in carers to support someone with dementia. Firstly, you can advertise for a live-in carer on popular job sites such as Indeed, however, this can be very time consuming and stressful given the need to thoroughly assess and vet a carer. Alternatively, you can contact a specialist live-in care agency who will be able to quickly and efficiently match you with a carer who will have already been vetted and referenced checked and who has the right skills, experience and personality for the role.
How we can help
At Helpd we will make the process of finding and choosing a live in carer straightforward – and that includes carers who are experienced and trained in supporting their client with memory loss and all types of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Our expert team will be happy to speak to you and will take the time to understand your situation and your needs and will match you with a wonderful live-in carer.