Sometimes figuring out what the doctor has just said can be challenging for the caregiver.
Even sometimes when you are coming out of the doctor’s office.
When the doctor told Tom his wife had dementia, his first thought was , “Thank Goodness it’s not Alzheimer’s.” Only after the doctor explained that Alzheimer’s was still a possibility and why, did Tom understand his wife could have Alzheimer’s.
This post I wrote recently for family caregivers explains the difference between dementia vs Alzheimer’s.
If you’re wondering about the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you’re not alone.
They often mean different things to doctors and patients. And can be confusing.
So what’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?
- Dementia is a general term describing a group of symptoms.
- Alzheimer’s is a cause of dementia.
Dementia is a term used by doctors to describe forgetfulness and the loss of the ability to think clearly and draw conclusions. Or what is often described as “sound thinking” or “sound reasoning.” Some doctors now use the term “neurocognitive disorder” instead of dementia.
It’s not to add confusion. Instead to doctors it is a more precise term. Another example is that doctors usually call a heart attack a myocardial infarction or abbreviate the term as “MI”.
It’s shorthand to the doctors that precisely defines the term. The myocardium is the heart muscle, and infarction is the process of cell damage that occurs during an MI.
Alzheimer’s disease – also sometimes called Alzheimer’s dementia – is a specific cause of dementia.
Using two terms is similar in describing head or sinus congestion. The congestion is the group of symptoms that describe what is happening. Nasal stuffiness and a runny nose are examples of the symptoms included in head congestion.
The causes of congestion can be varied, including infections like a cold virus or a sinus infection, or allergies like hay fever. And if the doctor doesn’t know the cause, she uses a term like sinus congestion to describe the symptoms.
Dementia too has more than one cause. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of irreversible dementia in adults. Vascular disease (usually strokes), Parkinson’s disease, vitamin deficiencies and thyroid disease are some of the other in the list of causes of dementia.
The vitamin deficiencies may be preventable, and thyroid dementia may be reversible when treated early and appropriately.
Do you see how knowing the cause of the dementia is important?
Finding the cause, especially finding one that is potentially treatable and even reversible, is why an examination for the cause of dementia is important. A history and physical exam will tell the doctor some things, and laboratory tests, radiology tests or other tests or referrals may be ordered.
And to the caregiver, knowing a more precise diagnosis than dementia can help you in your caregiving. The doctor should explain the expected course of the dementia. Doctors call this the prognosis.
Knowing what to expect can help the caregiver and family plan for the future. It’s quite different to know that someone’s disease will continue to get worse rather than stay at the same level.
One place to get information about caregiving and help in finding resources is a free service from AARP. Their Caregiving Resource Center has a lot of information for caregivers. They even have a toll free phone line to help you find the resources you need.
Just go to http://aarp.org/caregiving and check it out yourself!
Sometimes the difference between dementia vs Alzheimer’s is not as important.
When service personnel like a waiter understands that the person you are with may be forgetful and easily confused, it really doesn’t matter if they know the exact diagnosis.
They probably will be more likely to be compassionate and patient, if they know there’s a problem.
Yet caregivers are often unable to discretely let them know there’s a potential problem. After all, you probably don’t want to let the entire restaurant know.
Wondering how you can discretely let someone know the person you are with is forgetful and may get confused or upset unexpectedly?
Now there are business-size cards you can carry with you to quietly alert a waitress, receptionist or other service people the person you are with has Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia.
Without alerting the whole room.
To your thriving in caregiving,
Ina Gilmore, M.D. (Retired)
“The Knitting Dr.”
Founder, www.CaregivingWithPurpose.com and www.TheKnittingYarn.com
Ambassador of Elder Care at www.HowToLiveOnPurpose.com