Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not the same thing. The truth is that Alzheimer’s disease is just one of many causes of dementia. While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease right now, some of the other causes of dementia are treatable. And, if caught early enough, the damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease can be slowed, and patients can maintain their quality of life for longer.

What are dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

Dementia is an umbrella term for symptoms that cause changes in brain functions over time – usually memory loss, changes in behavior, trouble communicating, etc.  There are several illnesses that can cause dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It’s a progressive disease, meaning symptoms usually worsen over time, which causes the brain cells to degenerate and eventually die.  The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is still unknown, but it’s generally believed that it’s caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors over time. 

There are several other types of dementia. The only way to tell which kind you or a loved one may be suffering from is to talk with a doctor. They include:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)

It’s important to remember that dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are NOT normal parts of aging. They are illnesses that should be addressed. Prior to a dementia diagnosis, patients may be given a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment – which can come with getting older. However, people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment are at increased risk of developing dementia, so it’s important to continue monitoring these patients.

Symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Most people know that both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are associated with memory loss. But what many don’t realize that one of the most common early warning signs is depression. People may notice symptoms of depression long before they or others perceive a noticeable lapse in memory or other changes in cognitive abilities. 

One thing many people don’t realize about memory loss caused by neurological disorders is that people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can often remember details from their childhoods, or from years ago, perfectly well. These diseases tend to affect the brain’s ability to store and recall new memories. So a person suffering from dementia may be able to list their entire first grade class while being unable to recall having dinner with a loved one the night before. Other symptoms of dementia can include: 

  • Apathy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Irritability or aggressiveness
  • Delusions
  • Confusion about events, time, and place
  • Changes in personality and judgment

Diagnosis and treatment 

Determining what’s causing dementia symptoms is an important first step. For starters, certain illnesses like a vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid problems, and untreated sleep apnea can masquerade as Alzheimer’s disease by causing cognitive impairment – and that cognitive deficits caused by some conditions may be reversible.  

Some people avoid diagnosis because, since there’s currently no cure, they think there’s nothing that can be done. However, there are multiple treatments that may slow the progression of dementia. Also, dementia can exacerbate other illnesses. For example, it can cause people with heart problems or diabetes to forget to take their medication. People get lost and confused and can get injured. Our AHN dementia and Alzheimer’s disease specialists can help you identify and manage these risks. 

Diagnosing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may require evaluation by a neurologist to rule out treatable causes of cognitive impairment and look for other neurological disorders that can cause dementia. A neuropsychological evaluation may also be useful in clarifying the cause of the dementia and a patient's level of functioning. A neuropsychological evaluation frequently takes about 3-4 hours and tests things like:

  • Memory
  • Attention span
  • Non-verbal abilities
  • Language
  • Reasoning
  • Motor and thinking speed

 Once diagnosed, there are a variety of treatments that may slow illness progression, including prescription medications, diet, and exercise routines. Your doctor will walk you through your options. 

Contact us

If you believe that you or a loved one may be showing signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it’s always a good idea to talk to your PCP first. They can rule out some of the other causes of dementia or recommend a specialist for further evaluation. Find a doctor near you.

To schedule an appointment or learn more about AHN neuroscience services, call (412) 578-3925.

If you're an existing patient, you can also call (412) DOCTORS (412) 362-8677 in Pittsburgh or request an appointment with AHN neuroscience services.