HopeHealth Dementia & Alzheimer’s Services is a trusted source of knowledge and guidance for families facing the impact of dementia.
What Is Dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not one and the same.
Dementia is not a disease. It is a general term used to describe a decline in mental function—such as memory, thinking and reasoning—severe enough to interfere in daily life.
Dementia can be caused by more than 70 types of brain diseases. Alzheimer’s is the most common type, while vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia and frontal lobe dementia are others. While these diseases progress over time, symptoms can be managed, especially with an early diagnosis.
Some of the risk factors for dementia can include high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and obesity. You may be able to reduce your risk by exercising, eating a heart-healthy diet, engaging in social stimulation and getting a good night’s sleep.
Different dementias progress at different rates, and not all memory loss is even due to a dementia. Some memory loss can indicate the occurrence of metabolic changes. That’s why it’s important to understand the underlying causes of your memory loss—and be sure to visit your health care provider if you have concerns.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological deterioration and the most common form of dementia. About 1 in 9 people aged 65 and older have Alzheimer’s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before age 65, they’re said to have younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This form of dementia accounts for about 200,000 cases in the U.S.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s or Dementia
It’s normal to lose some mental sharpness as we age. But when changes in memory, mood and thinking start to impact your daily life, it’s time to talk to a doctor. Emotional problems, problems with language and a decrease in motivation are other warning signs. Dementia does not affect a person’s consciousness.
Doctors diagnose dementia by conducting a full investigation of symptoms using various tests and techniques, including:
- A medical history based on interviews with the patient, caregivers and family members.
- A physical and neurological exam to assess cognitive impairment and neuropsychological functioning.
- Diagnostic testing, psychological testing and imaging (MRI or CT scan).
Dementia is present if the symptoms of mental decline mark a change from the patient’s usual mental functioning and are greater than one would expect due to normal aging. Further, the patient must have a significant decline with at least two of these core mental functions:
- Communication and language
- Ability to focus and pay attention
- Reasoning and judgment
- Visual perception
10 Early Signs of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Contact your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing any of these issues:
- Trouble with remembering appointments, important dates or family commitments
- Struggling to perform familiar tasks like washing the dishes, cooking, or cutting the grass
- Failing to take initiative, sleeping more or losing interest in things
- Losing track of where you are, the time of day or day of the week
- Lapses in judgment, especially concerning the use of money or safe driving
- Struggling with abstract thinking and the ability to understand concepts
- Difficulty with language, speaking or understanding
- Misplacing or losing things frequently
- Experiencing mood changes, irritability, depression or episodes of anger or tears
- Exhibiting personality changes, such as withdrawing, feeling anxious or acting suspicious (if these behaviors were not normal personality traits before)
The Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) most commonly progresses through three stages, although every patient is unique and can experience symptoms in different ways.
The early stage (mild)
Changes in the brain can begin 10 to 20 years before symptoms appear. However, the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease relate to slips in memory, language and reasoning. These symptoms are:
- short-term memory loss
- changes in mood
- changes in personality
- loss of initiative
- inability to learn new things
- difficulty with finding words
- problems with abstract thinking
- poor judgment
- altered sense of time
- visual spatial disturbances
You might attribute these symptoms to normal aging, since most people can still function independently. Most people in the early stage will not visit the doctor unless prompted by a family member.
The middle stage (moderate)
The next symptoms relate to mood and additional memory lapses. These include:
- Behavioral problems, such as wandering, agitation and vocal outbursts
- Loss of gross-motor and fine-motor movement
- Loss of day-to-day functioning, like the ability to pay bills
- Difficulty with toileting, dressing and walking
- Sleep disturbances (awake at night, sleeping during the day)
- More pronounced personality and emotional changes
- Delusions and hallucinations
These worsening symptoms require more intensive supervision and care, which can leave family caregivers overwhelmed. Families seek medical intervention or assistance most often during this stage.
The late stage (severe)
In the final stage of Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to converse or speak coherently, require assistance with daily care and experience a decline in physical abilities. The final symptoms are:
- Cannot recognize family members
- Loss of verbal skills
- Complete dependence on others for care
- Seem to have lost all sense of self
- Weight loss
- Skin infections
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sleeping more
- Incontinence of both bowel and bladder
If you are concerned about a loved one, call Hope Dementia & Alzheimer’s Services for a consultation or assessment. Developing a care plan early and receiving education and emotional support can make a big difference in how families successfully live with the diagnosis.