Nancy Wurtzel

Nancy Wurtzel is a public relations professional and creative writer, who recently returned to her native Minnesota after living on the West Coast for many years. Read about her midlife journey on her blog, Dating Dementia, as she navigates through divorce, restarting a career, dating, empty nest challenges, moving home, baby boomer issues and caring for an aging parent with Alzheimer’s. Follow Nancy on Twitter and Facebook.

Are Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia the Same?

Posted by: Nancy Wurtzel Updated: March 11, 2014 - 10:04 AM

About eight years ago my mom began to demonstrate personality changes and memory issues.  Mummy, as we affectionately called her, was repeating herself, having difficulty communicating and had begun hoarding -- plastic bags, Kleenex, pennies and even little pats of butter.

Looking for answers, my sister took Mummy to see her family doctor, calling ahead to advise him of the memory issues and obsessive behavior.

During her appointment, the doctor asked a series of questions, conducted a cursory exam and within minutes had a "diagnosis."

"Don't worry," he said, patting my mother's hand, "It's not Alzheimer's disease.  It's only dementia."

My mom left her doctor's office feeling relieved that day.  However, by this point in our lives, my sister and I had had plenty of experience with Alzheimer's disease.  We knew there was plenty to worry about.

This doctor's visit happened eight years ago, but there is still a confusion surrounding Alzheimer's and dementia.  Many people use the terms interchangeably -- giving the impression they are one in the same.  Others, think both Alzheimer's and dementia are diseases, with dementia being less damaging or severe than Alzheimer's disease.

These myths are widespread, even among the media some healthcare providers, and are very difficult to dispel.

Why?

First, it can be challenging to wrap your head around this complex subject.  The confusion may also stem from a lack of clear reporting in the media.  Additionally, Alzheimer's has become a dreaded word.  It's a word many people avoid using, preferring instead the softer, less-threatening term, 'dementia.'

Whatever the reason, the all-to-common misconception is that Alzheimer's disease and dementia are one in the same.

They are not.

To understand dementia, you have to first recognize it is not a disease.  Rather, it is an overall, umbrella term used to describe a group of symptoms that affect a person's mental and physical abilities.

You could compare it to the term fever, which tells you a person has an elevated temperature with perhaps other accompanying symptoms.  However, fever is caused by something that is happening in the body.

The same is true of dementia -- it is result of something happening to the body.

There are many types of dementia symptoms and they can often vary from person-to-person.  Some of the more common symptoms are short-term memory loss, depression, irritability and mood changes, lack of coordination and motor skills, difficulty walking, loss of communication skills, difficulty solving problems, repetitive behaviors and a change in sleep patterns.

So, what is the root cause of these dementia symptoms?

Alzheimer's, a progressive, always fatal brain disease, is the culprit in about 70 percent of the dementia cases and affects more than 5.3 million in the U.S. alone.

Yet, you can have dementia symptoms and not have Alzheimer's disease.

Other diseases that bring about dementia symptoms include dementia with Lewy Bodies, vascular dementia, fronto-temporal dementia, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, prolonged and excessive alcohol or drug use as well as several other rare types of diseases also affecting the brain.  Although dementia symptoms vary widely, all of these diseases affect a person's thinking, behavior and memory.  The disease steals the person's cognitive abilities and destroys their lives in the process.

Knowledge is power.  The more we know and the better we can communicate about Alzheimer's,  the more powerful we become.  Use your power to set the record straight about the myth that Alzheimer's and dementia are one in the same.

You may open up some conversations about this disease and who knows where it might lead?

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