When people talk about Alzheimer’s disease, they often think it is the same with dementia.
But dementia is actually different from Alzheimer’s disease. The two terms mean health conditions at different levels.
If you imagine that the fruit bowl in your kitchen is dementia, then Alzheimer’s disease is one type of fruit in the bowl.
Dementia is not a specific disease, and Alzheimer’s is a cause of dementia.
There are other types of dementia, such as frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia and vascular dementia.
Because Alzheimer’s disease can account for about 75% of dementia cases, the two words are often used interchangeably.
One big feature of Alzheimer’s disease is that the condition affects the brain parts responsible for memory. That’s why memory loss is a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.
But for other types of dementia, the condition may change the patient’s personality and behavior. These symptoms are common in frontotemporal dementia.
Why is that?
Because people with frontotemporal dementia have shrinkage in the frontal lobes of the brain. The frontal lobes play important roles in controlling voluntary behavior, emotions and reasoning.
Another big difference between Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia is age.
Of all the people who have Alzheimer’s disease, about 5% develop symptoms before age 65. But frontotemporal dementia is a common dementia in people under the age of 65.
To diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, doctors use several methods and tools to help determine whether a person who is having memory problems has “possible Alzheimer’s dementia” or “probable Alzheimer’s dementia”.
“Possible Alzheimer’s dementia” means dementia may be due to another cause, and “probable Alzheimer’s dementia” means no other cause for dementia can be found.
Memory tests and brain scan tests like CT, PET, and fMRI are important.
For frontotemporal dementia, currently there is no diagnostic test. Doctors have to diagnose frontotemporal dementia via careful assessment of a person’s symptoms.
Some typical symptoms of frontotemporal dementia include impulsive decisions, low motivation in doing things, reduced empathy, changed eating behaviors, repetitive behaviors and difficulties in complex thinking.
The symptoms of frontotemporal dementia can vary from person to person.
Because the symptoms are quite various, it is easy to misdiagnose the condition. For example, behavioral changes in frontotemporal dementia tend to be mistaken for symptoms of depression or psychiatric disorders.
When accurate dementia diagnosis is delayed, the condition can become more dangerous. Thus, targeting dementia in early stages is critical.
In addition, dementia can become more harmful when family caregivers are very stressed.
One study from UC Berkeley shows that when caregivers experienced depression, anxiety and other symptoms of mental illness, dementia patients typically died sooner than those being looked after by caregivers in good mental health.
In the future, researchers need to conduct new research to develop appropriate and effective management strategies for people living with different types of dementia.
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