Our dementia advisors get asked this question all the time, as more and more people try to get to grips with this illness and what it’s all about.
People hear the word ‘dementia’ – but they’re not quite sure how it fits with that other word ‘Alzheimer’s’, especially when it seems these words are often used interchangeably, as if they mean exactly the same thing.
Some people are quite sure that they are different things: for example some family carers will say, “Oh she’s got Alzheimer’s but no sign of dementia yet”.
The answer? Dementia is a word that describes a set of symptoms – memory loss, and changes to a person’s thinking, language skills, behaviour and ability to carry out everyday tasks. The symptoms are caused by cells in the brain gradually dying away. Over time, the brain simply cannot function in the way that a healthy brain functions, and so the person starts showing signs and symptoms of dementia.
But what causes these symptoms? There are over 100 different types – or causes –of dementia. ‘Dementia’ is what we call an umbrella term, covering a long list of different diseases, all of which cause some sort of progressive brain deterioration. Alzheimer’s disease is just one of them. Lewy body disease is another. Vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease are others: these are the most common types, but there are many, many others.
One of the explanations for ‘dementia’ and ‘Alzheimer’s’ being used interchangeably is that Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia; approximately 70 per cent of all people with dementia do in fact have Alzheimer’s disease.
This means that if you do know a person living with dementia, the chances are fairly high that they have Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s disease are most likely to live with short-term memory problems, language problems (for example, trouble finding the right word), confusion, difficulty in social situations and taking longer to do regular everyday activities. This is probably the most typical presentation of dementia – and yet other types of dementia can lead to quite different symptoms.
Types of Dementia
It is important to find out which type of dementia a person has; it can help everyone if the type of dementia is identified.
Different types of dementia present quite differently – not all people with dementia have Alzheimer’s-type symptoms. Front-temporal dementia, for example, can cause a person to have lots of difficulties with their behaviour, judgement, emotional responses, ability to get up and go, and language difficulties. Knowing that this is the cause – and the person is not deliberately trying to be awkward – can help build empathy and coping strategies for everyone involved.
Knowing which type of dementia a person has can also have implications for the sort of medication the person can take. There are a few drugs that can offer temporary improvement to some people’s cognitive functioning, but it’s only suitable for some people if they have particular types of dementia.
It is possible that a person may present as having dementia, but only when they go through full investigations is it revealed that perhaps the cause for their symptoms is not dementia, but is something treatable. Infections, a lack of vitamin B12, depression and various other things can cause dementia-like symptoms – so it’s important to know this and get an accurate diagnosis.
Is that all clear then? The confusion with these two words is completely understandable. The media often use them interchangeably. Until recently, the major organisation campaigning in this area was called ‘Alzheimer’s Australia’, even though it was supporting and advocating for people with all types of dementia. Since October 2017, it’s changed its name to ‘Dementia Australia’, to try to tackle this precise issue.
No matter which type of dementia you have, Ozcare is here to help. As a specialist dementia organisation we have five different services available to people living with dementia and their carers.
Whether in-home or at an aged care facility, we’re here to help at every stage, including a free dementia support & advisory service for anyone who has received a dementia diagnosis.