Are Dementia and Alzheimer's the same thing?
Posted on 12th September 2018 at 07:45
Despite all the press coverage – and scare stories – over the last few years about Dementia and Alzheimer’s there still seems to be a huge amount of confusion about them. And we should quickly say that no pun was intended.
In talking to clients, we’ve noticed that most people seem to use these two words interchangeably. And, even when there’s been a diagnosis of one or the other, they don’t seem to be much the wiser. To know what it actually means. Or what can be done to help.
To start with, Dementia and Alzheimer’s aren’t the same thing. Dementia is just a general description, an umbrella term if you like. It’s a set of very general symptoms which include memory loss, difficulties with thinking, communication and problem solving. The person loses their mental “sharpness” and speed, finding it harder to carry out simple daily activities.
These changes tend to come on gradually and are usually very small to start with. Over time they can become more severe – although this isn’t necessarily the case – and affect the person’s ability to deal with day to day life. There may also be changes in mood or behaviour with mood swings or angry outbursts.
Despite what you may hear in the press, Dementia isn’t a normal part of ageing. It’s not inevitable, although the risk does increase with age. In addition, as with many other conditions, the lack of a definitive test coupled with its general symptoms, mean that it can be mistaken for other conditions and a diagnosis wrongly made.
Depression, for example, shares many of the same symptoms. It’s also a low energy state, where the person can become slow and confused. Shockingly, dehydration can produce very similar symptoms, as can poor nutrition and over medication. For this reason, the person’s overall health and lifestyle should be looked at over a period of time rather than an assessment being made on a single visit.
With Dementia being used to describe a very general set of symptoms, it’s not surprising that conventional medicine has a long list of possible causes. These include degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s or Huntington’s Diseases, Stroke and other vascular diseases, long term drug use, severe head injuries and infections such as HIV. Where more than one potential cause is identified, it tends to be diagnosed as “Mixed Dementia” although this can only be confirmed post mortem.
In addition to these, there’s another cause which is estimated to account for as many as 70% of cases. And this is Alzheimer’s Disease, which explains why these two terms are used interchangeably. Unlike Dementia, physical changes can be seen in the brain with the build up of abnormal protein deposits in brain cells, which begin to wither and die. Unlike Dementia, Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease with the brain shrinking over time affecting cognitive abilities.
While there are physical changes, once again these can only be confirmed post mortem, meaning that the diagnosis is primarily based on a list of general symptoms. These focus on poor memory, impaired judgment, confusion, apathy, poor communication and behavioural changes.
Again, the risk increases over time, with those over 60 years old being at greater risk. Finally, it’s been suggested that there may be a genetic link to Alzheimer’s although this is far from certain.
Sadly, the conventional approach to both Dementia and Alzheimer’s focuses on medication to manage the symptoms. However, as already mentioned, by taking a broader perspective and looking at the person’s overall health and lifestyle there are many things that can be done to help.
Simple things are often overlooked, such as whether the person is spending a lot of time on their own and so missing out on social interaction and company. Perhaps they’re exhausted from nursing a loved one or grieving for their loss. Or have never lived on their own and simply don’t have the skills to do so or the impetus to do it for themselves? Any of these could result in Dementia like symptoms and it’s easy to see how they could be wrongly diagnosed.
Similarly, the huge life change of retirement is often left out of the equation. Not only does the person lose the structure of their life but also the social interaction, mental stimulation and all the other – positive (!) – things from working and having a career. It’s little wonder that so many people go rapidly downhill after retiring, as they lose their identity and no longer have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Nor that so many people die within two years of retiring from work.
Another cause that’s easy to overlook are the unintended effects of taking multiple medications. While the interactions of some medications are well known, others are not, particularly where the person is taking several medications for different conditions. Sadly, this is a subject that many Doctors are aware of but are reluctant to address. While it’s only anecdotal, we’ve heard all too many stories of the unwanted and unanticipated side effects from additions – or changes – to medication. And of surprising improvements when medications were changed or stopped.
Of particular concern is the ongoing war on cholesterol and prescription of statins over the past few years. Sadly, the focus has been on a possible link between cholesterol and heart disease – and long ago disproven – while forgetting that cholesterol is essential for healthy cell function and a major component of the brain. We’ll leave it there for you to draw your own conclusions…
Poor diet, particularly one high in sugar, has been linked to brain changes similar to those found in Alzheimer’s cases. In addition, high carb diets – don’t forget that carbohydrates are broken down into sugar – have also been found to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. This has led to researchers to refer to Alzheimer’s as “Type 3 Diabetes”.
Poor sleep and sleep deprivation have also been found to lead to plaque build up in the brain. It’s thought that this is due to the body not having sufficient time to do all the necessary housekeeping and detoxing while we sleep and toxins building up in the brain, leading to plaque build up. And, as an aside, it’s also suggested that lack of physical activity during the day makes this much worse.
So aside from all the usual advice, what can you do to help?
Minimising sugar in all its forms is key. This means carbohydrates such as wheat and other grains as well as carbohydrate rich fillers such as rice and potatoes.
Increase healthy fats such as oily fish, nuts and seeds. And don’t forget healthy oils such as coconut oil and olive oil.
And make sure sufficient water is being drunk. Yes, we know it’s boring but it works!
Supplements such as lutein, zeaxanthin and ALA (Alpha Lipoic Acid) have been found to help.
Vitamin D deficiency has also been found to play part, as it’s needed by the Immune System to combat the inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s. It also has a protective role in helping to prevent Dementia generally, so another good reason to spend time outside in natural light every day.
Take regular exercise to boost blood flow to the brain and to stimulate detoxification.
Avoid aluminium cooking utensils and underarm deodorants that contain it. Aluminium bypasses the blood brain barrier and accumulates in the brain cells creating plaque. Just to make matters worse, brain cells are replaced more slowly than other cells. You have been warned.
And, finally, don’t under estimate the importance of having a reason to get out of bed in the morning. A purpose for living. Things to think about that are new or challenging. An active lifestyle.
As always, the choice is yours.
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