Question: Is Alzheimer’s the same thing as dementia?
Answer: Alzheimer’s is to dementia….as chair is to furniture. Alzheimer’s is to dementia….as orange is to fruit. Alzheimer’s is to dementia….as beagle is to dog.
You got that? If so, stop reading now. You won’t hurt my feelings.
If that doesn’t make sense or you want to learn more, read on.
Dementia is a set of symptoms. These symptoms might include changes in memory and/or personality, poor judgment, inappropriate behavior, impulsiveness, attention problems, and faulty reasoning. Notice I mentioned that dementia is MORE than memory problems. As a society, we tend to think that getting dementia just means we get forgetful. We lose our keys. We call people by the wrong names. We forget what day it is. And that’s a complete underestimation of how dementia can destroy a life.
People with dementia may show inappropriate sexual behavior toward family and friends. They may make racial slurs toward ethnic minorities at the grocery store. They might forget to pay their bills and find that their utilities are disconnected. It is common for people with dementia to wear clothing that is not appropriate for the weather (i.e., shorts in Iowa in the of middle of January). I once got a call from a woman who was horrified that her mother left her infant granddaughter home alone–because she forgot she was babysitting.
But does someone with dementia have Alzheimer’s? The answer is MAYBE. Alzheimer’s can cause dementia, but many other diseases can cause dementia as well. There’s Lewy-Body Dementia, Parkinson’s, vascular dementia (common after a stroke), Frontotemporal Dementia….Although there are many more causes of dementia, these are among the most common. When someone shows signs of dementia, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis, and this typically comes from a neurologist, a neuropsychologist, or a psychiatrist.
Alzheimer’s is the LEADING CAUSE OF DEMENTIA. What many people don’t know about Alzheimer’s is that it is a terminal disease. Alzheimer’s kills. It kills because is causes total brain failure. Our bodies cannot continue to function after enough of our brain cells die. When I do public speaking, I often mention in far too casual of a manner that Alzheimer’s is fatal. I am working on that. I need to be gentler with this information. I throw it out there assuming that the families of those with Alzheimer’s know that Alzheimer’s is terminal. I should know better.
My grandmother died of pancreatic cancer. We knew it was terminal cancer at the point of diagnosis. She passed away less than a week later. For those days, my family lived in crisis. We struggled to eat. We struggled to sleep. We cried. But we survived. You can live like that for four days. You don’t do permanent damage to your physical or mental health.
But Alzheimer’s is different. You can’t live in survival mode for the duration of the disease. It is not unusual for someone with Alzheimer’s to live ten years after diagnosis. People cannot exist in crisis for the length of the journey. Care partners must take care of their own health, and they must find a way to seek out hope and laughter. Furthermore, they MUST accept help. In our society, we glamorize the person who sacrifices their own life to care for a loved one. But Alzheimer’s is a marathon. Caregiving for someone with Alzheimer’s and not accepting help is like running that marathon and not drinking water.
So does someone with Alzheimer’s have dementia? YES. Does someone with dementia have Alzheimer’s? MAYBE.
If you’re in my Families and Aging class, I usually make this the essay question on your final.