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Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are commonly used interchangeably. There is a distinction however. The two diseases often cause confusion for patients, families, and caregivers. Though the diseases are related, they are strikingly different. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are still poorly understood which leads to them being confused for one another in common perceptions.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) defines dementia as a brain disorder which affects communication and performance of daily activities while Alzheimer’s disease is a specific subtype of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease specifically impacts the parts of your brain that control through, memory, and language.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for brain disorders that have symptoms of impaired thinking and memory. These physical and mental symptoms are so severe they interfere with a person’s daily functions.
In the early stages of dementia, the most common collection of symptoms or early symptoms of dementia are difficulty with language, memory loss, poor judgement, confusion, and changes in personality and mood. People with dementia may also struggle with problem solving and controlling their emotions. Later symptoms include difficulty with coordination and motor functions, paranoia, agitation, hallucinations, and withdrawal from their work and social life.
Dementia is often associated with the cognitive decline that comes with aging but diseases other than Alzheimer’s can cause to dementia. Other common types of dementia are triggered by Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Doctors determine the cause of dementia with brain scans, blood tests, and mental status evaluations. In order for a doctor to diagnose someone with dementia, the person must show severe difficulty with two or more brain functions, for example memory and language. In 90% of cases doctors are able to determine the cause of dementia.
Common forms of dementia include Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome (caused by repetitive head trauma) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, causing as many as 50 to 70% of all dementia cases. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are impaired thought, impaired speech, and general confusion.
Roughly 5.3 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. However, Alzheimer’s can only be diagnosed with 100% accuracy after death when the brain is thoroughly examined during the autopsy. Masses of abnormal proteins, linked to Alzheimer’s, can tell be discovered through a microscopic analysis of the deceased’s brain.
These abnormal proteins limit brain function, thus hindering the parts of the brain that control memory, abstract thinking, judgement, behavior, movement, and language. Alzheimer’s leads to worse dementia symptoms as it progressively destroys the person’s brain cells.
Alzheimer’s often progresses quite slowly. A person with the disease may experience a slow decline of cognitive capacity over seven to ten years. It is common for symptoms of appear after 60, though early-onset forms of the disease do exist normally as the result of genetics.
Alzheimer’s symptoms vary by individual but generally include getting lost, asking repetitive questions, experiencing difficulty handling money and paying bills, having poor decision-making skills, frequently misplacing items and undergoing personality changes. They also take longer often with daily tasks than they used to. As the disease progresses, victims may lose the ability to communicate and recognize oneself or family members.
What Is the Difference?
When a patient is diagnosed with dementia, they are being diagnosed with a larger set of symptoms. This means the actual disease is not yet known. This is similar to the diagnosis of say a sore throat. The patient has the symptoms of a sore throat but the cause of the sore throat is yet to be determined. Just the same, when someone is diagnosed with dementia they are experiencing particular symptoms but the cause has yet to be ascertained.
Alzheimer’s is not reversible but some forms of dementia are. Examples of reversible or temporary dementia are drug interactions or vitamin deficiency. Once the cause of the dementia is determined, treatment or counseling can begin.
Types of Dementia
The general term dementia should not confused with certain types of brain disorders that include dementia in their names. The sufferers of Lewy body dementia, for example, contain abnormal protein clumps in their brains that has also been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s sufferers. Yet, Lewy body dementia has particular characteristics such as fluctuations between confusion and clear thinking.
Vascular dementia is caused by arteries insufficiently pumping blood to the brain or heart causing brain damage. The symptoms can be temporary or progressively get worse. They often begin suddenly after a stroke or heart attack.
Frontotemporal dementia is a group of diseases where nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain deteriorate. These lobes control personality, behavior, and language.
CBD and Alzheimer’s
A few studies have shown taking medical cannabis could manage some behavioral symptoms of dementia. There is currently no evidence cannabis can prevent the disease, but as studies increase we may see how medical cannabis can help mitigate dementia symptoms.
The hippocampus contains the CB1 receptor and is known to be vulnerable to the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s. This damage contributes to the issues with memory and learning associated with the disease. There is growing evidence, additionally, that the microglia, the house of the CB2 receptor, play a critical role in the development of the disease. Some studies have found people with Alzheimer’s disease have an increased number of CB2 receptors in their brains.
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