Memory loss, personality changes, depression, and confusion in a loved one can be frightening. Prompt treatment for signs of dementia can help your family develop a plan for supporting your loved one.
Though Alzheimer's and dementia are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. Dementia is a syndrome characterized by progressive loss of cognitive abilities. Researchers have identified hundreds of types of dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. While Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, not all dementia is due to Alzheimer’s.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Why the Distinction Matters
Dementia is a progressive disorder that gets worse with time. There’s no cure, so many people who have a loved one with dementia think that getting the right diagnosis doesn’t matter. The symptoms of dementia can be managed with the right treatment, but the right treatment depends on an accurate diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s, for example, often responds well to Alzheimer’s medications that slow the progress of the disease. Memory cues such as lists and calendars, a supportive environment, and exercise can also help.
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), unlike Alzheimer’s, affects behavior first. People with FTD may become aggressive, exhibit bizarre personality changes, or even break the law. Some forms of FTD, such as primary progressive aphasia, affect speech first. Speech therapy can help with speech issues, while behavioral medications may help with the behavioral symptoms of FTD.
Parkinson’s is a type of dementia that affects movement, behavior, and memory. Drugs that encourage the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, can slow the progression of the disease and may help with movement issues.
All types of dementia eventually affect memory and thinking. Even neurologists can struggle to distinguish one form of dementia from another. However, assuming all dementia is due to Alzheimer’s can delay proper treatment and make it difficult to plan for the future. So it’s important to see a neurologist for an accurate diagnosis as soon as symptoms appear.
Is It Alzheimer’s or Something Else?
Different types of dementia start in different areas of the brain. The area of the brain that dementia affects plays a major role in which symptoms appear first. For example, primary progressive aphasia tends to affect the brain’s language centers first. Alzheimer’s attacks areas of the brain that affect memory, such as the hippocampus and cerebral cortex.
As dementia progresses, it affects other areas of the brain. Some neurologists compare dementia to a funnel: at the top of the funnel, when the disease begins, the symptoms are different. But as dementia progresses, the symptoms of different types of dementia become more similar. The closer you are to the top of the funnel—in other words, the earlier you are in the disease—the easier it is to tell different dementias apart.
So if your loved one is showing troubling signs in their thinking or behavior, see a doctor. It’s helpful to make a list of all of their symptoms, even if those symptoms aren’t consistent with Alzheimer’s. After all, they might have a different type of dementia. Knowing which symptoms your loved one experiences can help the doctor decide which tests are appropriate.
Getting Help for Your Loved One
Dementia is not curable, but people with dementia can still live long and meaningful lives. The progress of dementia depends on the type your loved one has. Some people live many decades with dementia, while others live only a few years. Others die of something else well before dementia symptoms become severe.
A neurologist with expertise in your loved one’s specific form of dementia is your best resource. Local support groups may also help you find ways to manage your own emotions while supporting your loved one.
Your goal should be to help your loved one remain as independent as possible, while providing them with lots of activities and sources of meaning. Music, dance, reading, art, gardening, family vacations, and even volunteering can offer meaning and enjoyment to people with dementia. The key is to find fun activities that your loved one is still able to do. So while memory games or Scrabble might prove difficult, a painting class or a long walk are viable substitutes.
Supporting a loved one with dementia is tough. You may feel overwhelmed, afraid, and frustrated. There’s plenty of help available when you need it. To learn more about dementia, find resources for caregivers, and determine your next steps, check out our free dementia care guide.