Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

With aging, some forgetfulness is expected, but when your memory isn’t the only thing causing you concern, it may be time to consider if you’re one of the 6 million individuals living with Alzheimer’s Disease. While people often assume Alzheimer’s and Dementia are interchangeable – there are important differences between the two. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Dementia is a broad term for a change in an individual’s memory, thinking, or reasoning. There are many different causes of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, Vascular, Lewy body, Frontotemporal, Huntington’s, or mixed dementia (from more than one cause).

It’s important to note that Alzheimer’s is not a normal process of aging; it is a disease of the brain. For Alzheimer’s Association volunteer Kent O’Grady, the disease hits close to home as both sets of grandparents and his mother were diagnosed with the debilitating disease. “Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia affect not just your memory but your cognitive ability. It’s the ability to solve problems and do math. When my mom started showing symptoms, one of the things we noticed was that she couldn’t balance her checkbook anymore,” explained O’Grady.

Other tell-tale signs of the disease include someone’s ability to judge speed and distance behind the wheel. It’s not surprising that one in four people are uncomfortable talking with their doctor about some of the symptoms they are experiencing. The fear of the unknown and a potential loss of independence can cause uncertainty and anxiety.

“We know this disease can affect people younger than 65 years old. At the age of 45, the average risk for Alzheimer’s is 1 in 5 for women and 1 in 10 for men. However, after the age of 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. It’s estimated 34 percent of people 85 or older have Alzheimer’s.”

Alzheimer’s Association research has shown those who have a parent or sibling with the disease are more likely to develop it. And the risk increases if more than one family member has it. Your ethnicity, race, and sex can also be risk factors. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, older Hispanic and Black adults are disproportionately more likely than White adults to have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

So, what exactly happens in the brain to cause Alzheimer’s? “The disease causes nerve cells to die, leading to brain shrinkage. More than 100 years ago, Dr. Alois Alzheimer described specific changes in the brain, the formation of plaques and tau tangles,” said O’Grady. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that, on average, a person with the disease lives 4 to 8 years after diagnosis. While there are FDA-approved treatments proven to change the progression of the disease, there is no medication that can stop it or cure it. Exercise and good nutrition are recommended prevention tools, as being physical helps get the blood pumping through your brain.

If you suspect a loved one or yourself may have Alzheimer’s, the first step is getting a cognitive evaluation. Call 218-546-7462 to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.

For those looking to raise awareness, a walk is scheduled for this September in Brainerd. You can donate or register online.

Finally, if you’re a caregiver of someone living with dementia you’re invited to attend Cuyuna Regional Medical Center’s monthly caregiver support group. The in-person group is designed to provide support, guidance, and a safe space for caregivers of individuals with dementia. Whether you’re a family member, friend, or professional caregiver, we are here to help you navigate the challenges of caring for someone with dementia. Meetings are scheduled for the fourth Tuesday of each month.