Many people think that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are interchangeable terms for the same medical condition. This is not the case. Dementia is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of conditions associated with memory loss. Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is a specific type of dementia. Let’s look at some of the similarities and differences between the two.
Dementia, in general, is caused by damage to cells in the brain resulting in the damaged cells inability to function the way they normally would. There are a variety of factors that can lead to brain cell damage, and these factors are what often distinguish one type of dementia from another. For instance, what is known as vascular dementia is typically caused by a stroke, whereas Lewy body dementia is caused by protein deposits (Lewy bodies) forming in sections of the brain responsible for memory, thinking, and motor control. Unfortunately, scientists do not know what causes Lewy bodies to form in the first place.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease stems from a protein, called beta-amyloid, building up in the brain between nerve cells to from what are known as plaques. There is another protein, called tau, that accumulates in the brain and forms what are called tangles. This results in the neurons of the brain shrinking, and eventually, dying. As with Lewy body dementia, scientists do not know precisely what causes the initial onset of the protein build ups that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
While all forms of dementia are progressive, some types allow for longer life spans than others. For instance, the average life expectancy in cases of Alzheimer’s disease is eight to 10 years, while in cases of vascular dementia the figure is five years.
Although there is currently no cure for dementia, the good news is that numerous research studies and clinical trials are exploring ways to diagnose, treat, and manage it. Some medications, including cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, have been shown to lessen or delay the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Various strategies have also been developed to improve the quality of life and comfort of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Hopefully, science will soon discover more effective treatments, and ultimately, a cure.