There are 88 to 100 different types of dementia. What might have once been thought to be senility or normal aging approximately 100 years ago is now known as dementia today. However, dementia is not normal aging, neither is it a “disease” in itself. It is a collection of symptoms that affect a person’s thinking, memory, personality, ability to move and the ability to regulate heart and breathing.
Today the term dementia is often heard in conjunction with Alzheimer’s. Dementia does not equate to Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s does not equate to memory problems. Dementia is brain failure and Alzheimer’s is one of the many causes of the brain failure.
Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia. It is the most common type of dementia and the most researched globally. It was discovered over a 100 years ago by a German doctor, Alois Alzheimer. He was monitoring a patient who had peculiar behaviour patterns and, after an autopsy, Alzheimer discovered two abnormal neuron proteins cells known as Tau and Amyloid plaques in the patient. They are responsible for the interruption of messages between cells and, as a result, cause cell death. Since then, there has been a lot of research to understand the process and slow it down. However, there is no actual cure.
What is known is that the first line of attack is found in the hippocampus of the brain where memory is first formed. Therefore, short-term memory is one of the first symptoms noticed in Alzheimer’s disease. After, the disease kills most of that area and then travels throughout the brain in a general pattern that is slow and relentless, and this is how the different levels of the condition are developed. About 15% of people are diagnosed very early.
It’s difficult for people to differentiate normal aging and Alzheimer’s because the symptoms can be very similar. Doctors also have difficulty encouraging patients to get more testing because of the stigma involved. No one wants to be viewed as incompetent or stupid so patients tend to be in denial until they are in a further stage of Alzheimer’s.
The truth is, it is better to get the symptoms checked out early. If it is normal aging, then all the better to get medical advice on how to strengthen the memory. If not, you can still do things to help keep your quality of life and possibly decrease experiencing the other symptoms early in the condition.
The disease will continue and there is evidence that some people will not live with all the symptoms. Many researchers are taking a holistic approach to understand more of why two people with the same disease will have completely different experiences of symptoms or lack thereof. We are all uniquely designed and have our own genetic and chemical make-up with different environmental exposures. Therefore there are many factors to consider and there are a lot of questions still arising. The more individuals are educated, the easier it would be to fight and perhaps avoid the condition before a cure is developed. Prevention may be the best cure, therefore, understanding dementia in general, and the major types like Alzheimer’s, Vascular dementia, Frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body D\dementia, is the best proactive defence.
Questions about dementia:
Q: I sometimes have trouble finding the right words. Does this mean I have Alzheimer’s?
A: Not really. Can you remember the word later? Do visual cues help you find the word? Many times, this is considered normal aging if you can recall the word later or visual cues trigger your memory. When we age it takes longer for us to process information because our brains are loaded with information. We do start to slow down processing about 1.5% a year after age 25. Most of us start to notice it between ages 40 and 50. However, I believe we can strengthen this process at any age. Why wait for it to get worse? I advise you get it checked and then exercise your brain more.
-By Regina Posvar
Regina Posvar is the current president of the Saint Lucia Alzheimer’s and Dementia Association and has been a licensed nurse for 25 years. SLADA is supported by volunteers and donations and aims to bring awareness and support by providing awareness public workshops, family support, memory screenings, the Memory Café, counselling and family training for coping skills and communication with persons living with dementia.