Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are two medical terms that most people recognize, but many people are not familiar with how the two are related. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia is not a single disease; it’s an overall term — like heart disease — that covers a wide range of specific medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.”1 Although Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80% of all dementia cases, there are other forms of dementia, such as vascular dementia, Huntington’s Disease, and Lewy Body Dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia cause symptoms that eventually affect a person’s ability to lead a normal life. In addition to memory loss, a person with dementia may have trouble with communication and speech, decreased ability to concentrate, and a decline in judgment and reasoning skills. Your risk of dementia increases as you get older, especially after age 65, but dementia does occur in lower age groups.
Everyone forgets things occasionally, but this type of memory loss is not a normal part of aging. If you notice a loved one experiencing these symptoms, it is imperative to schedule an appointment with their primary care doctor (PCP) for further evaluation. While there is no one test to diagnose dementia, a PCP will review their family medical history, perform a complete physical exam, and complete a series of mental state exams to make a diagnosis.
While each case of dementia varies, symptoms progress from early stage to middle stage to late stage. Early stage symptoms (forgetting names, losing objects) might only be noticeable to a person’s closest family and friends; middle stage symptoms may include the inability to remember their own address or phone number, or not knowing to wear a jacket in cold weather. In the final/late stage, symptoms are severe. By this time, a person with dementia may not be able to swallow and might experience extreme personality changes.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia. Because every case is different, some people with dementia can live for up to 20 years after being diagnosed; currently, the average is 4-8 years after diagnosis. To maintain quality of life, different medications can help with sleep, behavioral changes, and cognitive function. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration also approved the first new drug in 20 years to treat Alzheimer’s disease; it is the first drug of its kind that may change disease progression for people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease.2
Caring for a loved one with dementia presents unique challenges. In the early stages, many people can still live independently and your role may be to mainly provide emotional support and discuss their future care preferences. But in the later stages of dementia, most patients need continuous care as their ability to eat, drink and complete other daily tasks deteriorates.
Since patients with dementia can live with the disease for many years, planning for late-stage care can be difficult. As a caregiver, it is important to recognize when you are no longer able to provide the level of care your loved one needs. In-home care, specialized long-term care facilities, and hospice care are all options during the later stage. If you are a caregiver of someone with dementia, there are many resources available to help you understand what your loved one is going through, and how you can help. Although there is currently no cure for dementia, there is hope. Scientists continue to research many topics surrounding this group of diseases, including treatments, prevention, and earlier diagnosis. Until we find those answers, the best way to help a person with dementia is to ensure they have a supportive, knowledgeable healthcare team to guide them (and you) through this difficult time.