Grandma’s forgetting faces. Grandpa’s mixing words. And you’re starting to worry.
Could it be Alzheimer’s?
But it could also be a different kind of dementia. And understanding possibilities can get them the proper help they need—possibly soon enough to slow down the damage.
Recognizing the Umbrella of Dementia—Because Not All Dogs are Poodles
“I know that by sharing I can change minds. I can shift the images instilled in people’s minds of what it’s like to have dementia.” (Wendy Mitchell, Somebody I Used to Know)
Dementia can signify a lot of symptoms. General ones like
- Struggling to remember.
- To think.
- To focus.
- To reason or use good judgment.
- To use the right emotion.
- To come up with language needed to communicate.
Often we label that Alzheimer’s. But Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t synonyms. Alzheimer’s is just one type of dementia.
The other types?
- They can have similar symptoms—or different.
- They can create similar damage—or different.
In fact, sometimes doctors can’t be sure what type of dementia Grandma has until the battle’s over.
But looking at how, when, and what symptoms show up gives them a good idea.
First, let’s see what they find with Alzheimer’s. Then come back so see how other types of dementia compare.
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)—When Memories Get Tangled Up in Knots
“There are two types of people in this world, those who would take an Alzheimer’s patient on a joy ride and those that would say it was a waste of gas.
Which one are you?”
(-a dying young Alzheimer’s patient)
While Alzheimer’s is not the only form of dementia, it is the most common.
Six million patients in the U.S. have it right now in 2021. 72% of those are over 75 years old.
When Do Alzheimer’s Symptoms Start?
The disease may start years before symptoms. But when you start to notice?
- Normal onset symptoms usually begin after 65 years old, many after 75.
- The much rarer early-onset? Symptoms show before their mid-60s, even as far back as their 30s. But only 5-6% of those with Alzheimer’s fall into this early category.
What Are the Symptoms?
Symptoms can vary, but here are some.
- Forgetting recent events, conversations, or words
- Struggling to make decisions
- Losing things
- Making bad decisions because of poor judgment
- Struggling to carry out everyday tasks
- Asking the same questions over and over
- Straining to process words, their meaning, and logic
- Not recognizing family and friends
- Depression and a mix of other emotions
- Confusion about safety
- Getting lost or wandering
- Forgetting whole decades of events
- Inappropriate anger or cussing, or undressing in public
- Visual and spatial problems, struggling to identify clues, like color contrasts and forms
- Difficulty swallowing
What Causes Alzheimer’s?
Unfortunately, scientists aren’t sure.
- A small percentage has to do with three gene mutations—which can be passed down through families.
But that isn’t everyone.
It might have to do with:
- glucose metabolism,
- vascular issues, and
- inflammation of nerve cells,
and there’s a lot of discussion about preventing Alzheimer’s with healthy diets (e.g. less processed fatty food) and more exercise, especially aerobic.
What Happens to the Brain in Alzheimer’s?
While they aren’t sure of the cause, they do know the effects. In an autopsy, Alzheimer’s patients’ brains have “tangles” and “plaques.”
- Tangles are created inside nerve cells when cellular (tau) proteins fall apart and then build back incorrectly, tangling up cell pathways.
- Plaques are clumps of old, extra-long amino acids that couldn’t get dissolved between nerve cells.
- Those tangles and plaques lodge in areas of the brain (the hippocampus) that help us
- process emotions,
- learn new information, and
- develop memories (what you said five minutes ago, who came over to visit yesterday…).
Normally those brain areas take our short-term memories and move them to long-term.
- But as tangles and plaques bunch up, nerve cells die off. The brain shrinks. And short-term memories are lost.
Hence the reason Grandpa can remember when he was twenty-five, but not eighty-five.
Doctors and scientists originally thought if they treated the plaques and tangles, they could cure Alzheimer’s. But for some unknown reason, the disease keeps progressing. Meaning tangles and plaques are connected to Alzheimer’s, but not necessarily causing it.
Which indicates more research is needed.
How Long Does Someone with Alzheimer’s Survive?
Depends on who you ask and how quickly they’re diagnosed.
Some medications can slow the severity of the symptoms. But generally, Mayo Clinic says Alzheimer’s patients survive between three and eleven years once they develop symptoms. Some make it for twenty years.
The Alzheimer’s Association says most live from four to eight years.
Defining What Dementia Is NOT
“I am a person. Not a diagnosis.” (Alzheimer’s Association)
Since Alzheimer’s symptoms—and many other types of dementia—don’t show up till later in life, it’s easy to assume it’s a natural part of aging.
In fact, sometimes people confuse the word Alzheimer’s for “Old-Timer’s”
Just like dementia and Alzheimer’s aren’t synonyms, neither is “Old-Timer’s.”
Yes, we all forget things now and again, especially if we’re overwhelmed, grieving, or tired. But memory loss doesn’t happen just because Grandpa’s getting older.
It could be Alzheimer’s. It could be a different kind of dementia. It could be a UTI or some other type of infection. Or even a problem with medication.
But if he’s forgetting things, it’s time to figure out why.
“Sometimes memories sneak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks.”
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.