Alzheimer’s and Dementia – What are the Differences?

Alzheimer’s and Dementia – What are the Differences?

Often Alzheimer’s and Dementia are used interchangeably.  But according to the National Institute on Aging Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks, while Dementia is a group of symptoms that affect mental tasks like memory and reasoning.  According to the CDC, Alzheimer’s disease causes as much as 50 to 70 percent of all dementia cases.  Unlike Alzheimer’s which is a degenerative and permanent, some types of Dementia are temporary, including alcohol or drug related or vitamin deficiency.

More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s.  The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease worsen over time, although the rate of progression varies.  On average a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, but can live as long as 20 years.  About five percent of Americans have “early onset” Alzheimer’s which occurs in 40 to 50 year olds.

The Three Stages of Alzheimer’s

Stage 1 (Mild/Early) lasts two to four years.  During this time a person may function independently and often can cover up their deteriorating cognitive skills.  They may still work socialize and drive.  But the person is having memory lapses; friends and family notice difficulties.  A medical evaluation by a specialist may find problems of memory or concentration.  Typical signs include:

  • Problems coming up with the right name or word
  • Greater difficulty performing tasks in work or social situations
  • Forgetting something they just read
  • Losing something valuable
  • Increasing trouble planning or organizing tasks and events

Stage 2 (Moderate/Middle) typically the longest stage lasts two to ten years.  In this stage the person is no longer able to cover up their situation.  The damage to their brain’s nerve cells makes it difficult to express thoughts and perform routine tasks.  They use confusing words, get frustrated or angry, and/or act in unexpected ways. Typical signs include:

  • Forgetfulness of events or one’s recent life history
  • Unable to remember their address, schools/church attended
  • Confusion about the day or where they are
  • Requiring help in choosing appropriate clothing
  • Feeling moody or withdrawn, especially in socially or mentally challenging environments
  • Personality and behavioral changes, including suspiciousness, anxious, compulsive behavior
  • Changes in sleep patterns

Stage 3 (Severe/Late) lasts one to three years.  In this final stage of Alzheimer’s the person loses the ability to connect with their environment, carry on a conversation, and eventually to control movement.  They become confused about the past and present and often have extensive personality changes.  At this stage they need round-the-clock supervision and care as they:

  • Lose awareness of recent experiences and their surroundings
  • Cannot manage their personal care
  • Have increasing needs for assistance in walking, sitting and swallowing
  • Have great difficulty communicating
  • Are increasingly susceptible to infections, especially pneumonia

Alzheimer’s robs family of family.  It is difficult to see a loved-one not able to communicate and lose their faculties.  Early detection and care is critical as is engagement, communication and loving kindness from friends, family and caregivers.  Research continues on many fronts that hopefully will find relief from this disease.