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Publicity about Alzheimer's has led confusion for some: is it Alzheimer's or dementia?

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Alzheimer's activists have been educating the public about Alzheimer's disease and encouraging research to prevent and treat the disease. This activism has resulted in substantial publicity about Alzheimer's. However, this same publicity has lead to some confusion among people who ask about differences between Alzheimer's and dementia. What many don't understand is that Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia.

Hindsight tells me that my mother-in-law, Alice, was already suffering from dementia while she was the primary caregiver of my very ill father-in-law, Milton. I still remember one of the times when I was keeping Milton company while Alice drove off to the grocery store. Milton and I were having a good time, at least as good a time as one can when pending death is the third presence in the room. We knew we were "closing up shop," as we called it. During these visits, we talked of many things and cemented our already good relationship.

However, Alice took so long running her errand that particular day that we both began to worry. Eventually she came home, but she told me she had gotten lost on the way. Alice had gone to a nearby grocery store which she had frequented weekly for decades. I was puzzled, but glad she was okay, and didn't think too much of the situation as I was on my way to see one more of the many elders under my care, and needed to do this before I picked up my sons at school.

Signs of Dementia Start to Multiply

After Milton died and Alice had quit driving, I saw many other signs in Alice that dementia was present. There was no doubt that she had the disease. Eventually, she moved to a nursing home just across the avenue from her condo--one where my dad and uncle also lived.

Alice became increasingly paranoid and anxious, though the move to the nursing home was a huge step forward for her. She felt safe and secure there, so she was happier for a time. She lived at the home for a number of years. I visited nearly every day. I saw her decline, but dementia was only one of her problems, and as long as she was relatively content, there wasn't much more we could do.

It wasn't until a few years after her death that I started to wonder if she'd had Alzheimer's disease. By then there was a great deal more research available than there had been. Was her dementia something other than garden variety dementia, often referred to as organic brain disease? Was it Alzheimer's disease?

Research and Education Offer Clues

Now that I look back on Alice's symptoms with my increased knowledge, I realize that likely she did have Alzheimer's. According to the Mayo Clinic, 60% to 70% of dementias are due to Alzheimer's. At the time Alice suffered from dementia, there was little pressure to diagnose, as there wasn't really anything that could be done to help her, so we never considered putting her thorough tests.

Now, it's different. Today, when people ask me, "Is it Alzheimer's or dementia?" I not only tell them that Alzheimer's is dementia, I tell them an early diagnosis can be vital. Now, a diagnosis as early as symptoms appear could mean, for some people, months or even years of a better quality of life than they would have without treatment.

If it's dementia of another type, there may be something that can help, or there may not be. The only way to find out is to get a diagnosis to determine what type of dementia is present and go with the advice of a doctor trained in treating dementia.

Don't let that window of opportunity close while you wonder. Take advantage of the ever growing bank of knowledge and be proactive. It could make a world of difference to the people with the disease and their families.