Alzheimer's Is Only One Type of Dementia

Carol Bradley Bursack | Nov 11th 2016

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One of the most commonly asked questions about cognitive issues is “Is it Alzheimer’s or dementia?” The short answer is, Alzheimer’s is one type of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by physical changes in the brain.”

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Some types of dementia are reversible

The National Institutes of Health says that some types of dementia can be stopped or reversed with treatment. Normal pressure hydrocephalus, caused by excess cerebrospinal fluid, can be helped by surgical intervention. Some drugs, vitamin deficiencies, alcohol abuse, depression, and brain tumors can cause dementia-like symptoms. Most of these causes respond to treatment.

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Most types of dementia are not reversible

Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal disorders, and Lewy body dementia result in a progressive and irreversible loss of neurons and brain function. Currently, there are no cures for these progressive neurodegenerative disorders, though several drugs and treatments focusing on Alzheimer’s are in clinical trials.

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Misdiagnosis, under-diagnosis common

"Misdiagnosis and under-diagnosis are persistent concerns, particularly with lesser known conditions like Lewy Body Disease and Frontotemporal Dementia. Though not as well-known as Alzheimer’s disease, these conditions are among the most common causes of dementia,” neurologist Daniel C. Potts, M.D., told HealthCentral.

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Why are mistakes in diagnosis made?

“Early psychiatric and behavioral symptoms (such as psychosis, depression, and disinhibition) rather than the early short-term memory loss seen in Alzheimer’s disease, contribute to the diagnostic challenges encountered with these diseases,” Dr. Potts continued.

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Medical training must be improved

“I think we need to do a better job in our training programs for medical students and residents to both educate future providers about these diagnoses, and grow empathy in trainees for the unique challenges encountered by persons with these conditions and their families and caregivers," Dr. Potts concluded.

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People can have more than one type of dementia

When it comes to having more than one type of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association says  that while researchers don’t know how many older adults currently diagnosed with a specific type of dementia have mixed dementia, autopsies show that mixed dementia may be more common than previously realized. Autopsy is still the only way to be certain about the types involved.

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What types of dementia are often found together?

The Alzheimer’s Association says that in the most common form of mixed dementia, the abnormal protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s coexist with blood vessel problems linked to vascular dementia (VD). Alzheimer’s brain changes also often coexist with Lewy bodies. A person may have brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s, VD, and dementia with Lewy bodies.

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Why is early diagnosis important?

Although neurologically caused dementia of any type is not yet curable, early detection is helpful. To begin with, some types of treatment that are given for Alzheimer’s disease can be harmful to someone with another type of dementia or perhaps have an unknown effect on another type of dementia.

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Treatments work better when started early

Most types of treatment available now, or even those in development, perform better when dementia is diagnosed in the early stages. Therefore, whether the  treatment is a currently available drug or a stringent change of lifestyle such as the MEND approach, the best results occur when started early in the disease.

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Other reasons for early detection

Less tangible but extremely important reasons for early diagnosis include the fact that you have a label for the changes that have been worrying you, there is more time to plan for future care, financial, and legal approaches, you have an increased opportunity to participate in clinical research, and you have more time to develop a relationship with medical care partners.

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The takeaway

Alzheimer’s is only one type of dementia. Diagnostic errors are possible so find a specialist, often a neurologist, to diagnose you. If you suspect a problem, try to overcome natural feelings of denial and see a doctor, as even though there is currently no cure, an early diagnosis is still beneficial. Contact your local Alzheimer’s organization for any type of dementia. Or go online to www.alz.org.