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What is the difference between Alzheimer's disease & dementia?

On a cold, snowy winter day, a bowl of soup sounds good.

“What’s the soup of the day?” you ask the waitress at your favorite restaurant. A few minutes later you are enjoying a steaming cup of clam chowder.

“Soup” is a general term for a category of food. Soup comes in dozens of flavors, like chicken noodle, tomato, clam chowder, or mushroom. Every can of mushroom or tomato soup is soup—but not every can of soup is mushroom or tomato.

This simple example, first used by Canadian dementia expert Carol Bowlby Sifton, is an elegant way to describe the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Like “soup,” the word “dementia” is an umbrella term for anything that can cause issues with brain functioning such as confusion, memory loss, or loss of problem solving ability. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in older persons, there are many more varieties, including Lewy Body dementia, vascular dementia, or frontal lobe dementia.

Families often say that they struggle to understand what doctors mean by dementia. That’s why it’s important to ask the doctor what type of dementia is being diagnosed. David Troxel, a noted dementia expert who worked with Home Instead Senior Care to develop its Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias Training Program, emphasizes that the doctor should be able to tell you the specific diagnosis and the reason for that diagnosis, just like the waitress should be able to tell you the soup of the day and how that is different from other soups.

“It’s important to know the type of dementia being diagnosed,” Troxel said, “because different dementias have different characteristics, and family members need to know what to expect.” Persons with frontal lobe dementia, for example, often undergo profound personality changes and can get very disinhibited and outrageous. Persons with Lewy Body dementia may have profound visual hallucinations, including talking to little people in the room or seeing animals that are not really present. “It can be very helpful and reassuring for families to know that a particular behavior is part of the disease process, not just ‘bad behavior’,” Troxel noted.

In addition, different dementias may call for different medicines. Individuals with pure frontal lobe dementia often don’t do well on the typical memory medications like Aricept, Exelon & Razadyne, but they may respond to an anti-depressant. Persons with Lewy Body dementia seem to be very sensitive to mood-altering medications like anti-psychotics. In fact, an old nursing phrase says, “start low and go slow” when giving psychotropic medications to a person with Lewy Body dementia.

Finally, when the physician gives you a specific diagnosis it’s a sign that you’ve seen a medical provider who understands the contemporary best practices surrounding diagnosis. You can feel that you and your family member are in good hands.

Likewise, other professionals you may work with to care for your family member, such as professional in home caregivers, should be trained to understand the distinctions between various dementias. Paul Hogan, chairman of Home Instead Senior Care, says “Our CAREGivers are trained to understand the differences between Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. We want our clients’ families to know that we are here for them no matter which dementia diagnosis they face.”

Family caregivers can form a care team with the senior’s doctors, pharmacists, and other care providers focused on providing the best possible care and that focus needs to include an accurate understanding of the diagnosis, its symptoms, and its possible treatments. “Until we find a cure, the best approach to any of these dementias is engagement, activities, communication and loving care,” says Hogan.

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To find a caregiver in your area, contact your local Home Instead Senior Care office.

Thoughts and stories from others

  1. October 14, 2014 at 03:10 pm
    Posted by Connie Frey

    It has been about 2 months and my Mother still refuses to shower or bathe even after wetting her pants. She states, " I don't have to " and gets very agitated if asked again. A caregiver was bitten when being disagreeable with my Mother. HELP, What should I do?
  2. July 15, 2014 at 02:26 pm
    Posted by Gail Allan

    My Husband Sam is 70 yrs old and has luey Body Dementa we just found this out in 2013 but I feel he has had it longer very hard to expect for family and me his wife my name is Gail it was very hard on him because he doesn't understand he lost his driver license which was very hard on him he was a very hard worker and still tries to be its so hard to see this man I have been married to for 45 yrs gone down hill and lose pieces of him every day I get very mad and angery because I don't understand why. And I know he doesn't either I just need to talk to orther people
  3. February 22, 2014 at 01:22 am
    Posted by Callie

    My mother was diagnosed with dementia 7 years ago. 3 months ago, she became combative,as she didn't recognize our home or town. When we could not take her "home", she became combative. Eventually my father & I were referred to a geriatric psych facility, which treated her & helped us find a nursing home. We have been in & out of the hospital 2-3 times a month with my mom. Now father is developing symptoms. I am the only child. The nursing or hospital call me daily, often when I'm at a doctor's visit for my Dad. It's hard for other people to understand.
  4. December 31, 2013 at 01:40 pm
    Posted by Rick

    I can sympathize because my mother is also 92. My mom's personality has always been aggressive especially when she is opposed. Wilhelmina, our mothers a lot alike. Like you I only have (1) brother who lives in FL while my wife and I live in southern TN. The principal burden of caring for my mother falls to my wife and myself. I appreciate that dealing with all the details about helping your mother is exhausting since exhausted is my usual state of being. I wish I could give some advice but every situation is different. Hang in there and be proud that you are helping.
  5. August 22, 2013 at 09:35 pm
    Posted by Joyce Eberhardt

    My mom is 101 & we have been told she has dementia but I did not know there are difference kinds. She shows signs of hallucinating at times, does not remember things, does not believe me & has always been rather anti-sociable but worse. She's in assistant living invironment where others are not too bad but most can get around better.The nurses aide seem not to be trained to help people of this sort. The answer from the home is to move her to the hospital floor so they can make more money and watch & care for her. I am wits ends being with her every or other day. Help!

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