Dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and mild cognitive impairment. When it comes to memory loss and aging, you’ve likely heard these terms used interchangeably. While these conditions are somewhat related, they are all distinct in their own way.
Let’s take a closer look.
Dementia is not technically a disease, but rather is best described as a syndrome (a group of symptoms suggestive of one or more diseases).
Dementia is a general term that is used to describe a decline in mental ability that affects a person’s ability to function in daily life. To be diagnosed with dementia, a person must be impaired in at least two of the following areas: memory, communication and language, focus and attention, reasoning and judgment, or visual perception (like depth perception or color recognition).
Where some confusion occurs is that many diseases cause dementia. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s cause long-term memory loss (and are irreversible), while problems with your thyroid or vitamin deficiencies can cause short-term memory loss (and may be reversible).
Vascular dementia (which is caused by poor flow of blood to the brain due to damaged blood vessels typically after a stroke) can be prevented, in part, through healthy diet and exercise.
There are two types of Alzheimer’s: early-onset (affecting people under age 65) and late-onset. Late-onset accounts for 95 percent of cases.
There is no known single cause of Alzheimer’s, although age is the single greatest risk factor, along with a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
Although cognitive impairments are the primary symptoms of Alzheimer’s, it is a progressive disease that ultimately robs people of their ability to dress, bathe, or control bodily functions.
Personality changes are common with Alzheimer’s and can be challenging for close friends and family to experience sudden changes in mood or temperament.
While medication, diet, and exercise can slow the progress of the disease and lessen symptoms, there is no cure and early diagnosis is key to maintaining function as long as possible.
Parkinson’s disease is the second-most common cause of dementia. First known as “the shaking palsy,” Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease that affects motor control, cognitive ability and mental health. It can also cause mild cognitive impairment (defined below).
Parkinson’s is a disease caused by insufficient dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter the brain uses to communicate with the body’s muscles. It is thought that excess deposits of the protein alpha-synuclein in the region of the brain responsible for dopamine production is responsible for the decreased production.
Without sufficient communication between brain and muscles, people develop the tremors characteristic of the disease.
Parkinson’s also has non-motor symptoms, including speaking quietly, drooling, difficulty finding words, and other speech changes.
Early symptoms of the disease include a diminished sense of smell, lengthy constipation, and disrupted sleep.
There are pharmaceutical and surgical treatments for Parkinson’s and getting more sleep and exercise can also be beneficial, but all of these aim at managing symptoms since no cure currently exists for this disease.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Unlike dementia, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a change in cognitive function that, while large enough to notice, is not so severe that it disrupts the activities of daily living.
People with an MCI diagnosis have a greater risk of developing dementia. Half of MCI patients are diagnosed with dementia within five years.
There are no pharmaceutical treatments for MCI, but symptoms may improve with regular cardiovascular exercise, controlling blood pressure, and engaging in mentally and socially stimulating activities.
Caring for Someone with Memory Loss
Caring for a loved one with dementia can pose many challenges for families and caregivers. As dementia progresses, it becomes more difficult to remember things, think clearly, communicate with others, and take care of yourself.
There are many considerations when determining if becoming a family caregiver is right for you and your family. That’s why we’ve created an eBook that covers a variety of topics such as:
- Important legal documents family caregivers should obtain
- Resources for family caregivers
- How to take care of yourself as a family caregiver
- Long-term planning considerations