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Posted: November 15, 2004

Practical Caregiving

Alzheimer's and Vascular Dementia Differ in Many Ways

Alzheimer's is such a devastating disease. The first time Mom didn't recognize me, it really hurt, and there was nothing I could do to stop that horrible disease. At least by that time, Mom didn't have the frustration of understanding what was happening to her. The rest of us did, though.

When Mom was first diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, doctors didn't know much about it, and they didn't have medicines to help her.

A couple years before she died, they gave her Aricept, and that helped a lot. However, the disease had done so much damage by that time that there was no way she could recover to do a simple thing like feeding herself.

Just what is Alzheimer's disease?

What I found is that it is a degenerative disease in which the neurons of the brain die, resulting in the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. That sounds like a nice medical explanation, but do you understand any of it? I didn't, so I did a little more research to try to understand what a neuron is. Well, I still don't understand it. What I do understand is that a neuron is needed for us to be able to think, reason and function.

Scientists are still learning about Alzheimer's and hope to find a cure someday. Right now, though, there isn't a cure. We have medicines that help with the symptoms -- but no cure. Medical researchers don't know what causes Alzheimer's. They are starting to see connections to certain vitamins and other things, but they are not certain what that connection is.

Alzheimer's develops slowly and damages the brain long before there are signs that can be recognized. There have been three basic stages classified that a person with Alzheimer's goes through:

  1. The early signs show a steady decline with loss of recent memory, difficulty with language, personality changes, mood swings, and an inability to remember new information. Patients may become a little confused, even in their own home, and they may become depressed.
  2. The intermediate signs are additional memory loss, language problems and signs of physical aggressiveness. Patients may pace and become restless. They need help with bathing, eating, using the bathroom, dressing, and other normal daily activities. They need a caregiver's help with many of their activities.
  3. The latter signs show severe deterioration of thinking and reasoning. There is a complete loss of language, bladder and bowel control, and general daily activities. They are totally dependent on a caregiver.

The Alzheimer's Association has come up with 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's Disease. When you examine these signs, make sure you are not classifying normal problems as signs of Alzheimer's. You should always consult a doctor for a definite diagnosis. Here they are:

  • Memory loss.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks.
  • Problems with language.
  • Disorientation to time and place.
  • Poor or decreased judgment.
  • Problems with abstract thinking.
  • Misplacing things.
  • Changes in mood or behavior.
  • Changes in personality.
  • Loss of initiative.

Scientists now believe that vascular dementia and Alzheimer's can each contribute to the development of the other mind-robbing disease. That's what seemed to happen to Mom. Vascular dementia and Alzheimer's sometimes appear to be the same, but they are not. Here are a few of the differences:

Vascular dementia affects various parts of the brain causing some abilities to be affected while others remain unchanged. Alzheimer's affects the whole brain, causing every aspect of a person to be affected.
  • Vascular dementia can occur suddenly, then it may improve. Alzheimer's is a slowly developing disease with no improvement.
  • Many diseases and problems may be responsible for vascular dementia, and it may be possible to prevent vascular dementia. At this time, Alzheimer's can not be prevented.
  • Brain imaging techniques can reveal any brain damage, indicating vascular dementia. A diagnosis of Alzheimer's is given when there is no indication of this type of damage.
  • Vascular dementia is brought on by high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, strokes, TIA's (transient ischemic attacks -- or mini-strokes), diabetes and other diseases that restrict the flow of blood to the brain. It is not known what causes Alzheimer's disease.

Treatments for vascular dementia and Alzheimer's are completely different. When you talk to the doctor, please review last week's column and this one to guide you in drawing an accurate picture of your loved one's situation. It would have helped my sisters and me to have a better understanding of what was happening to Mom, and I know it will do so for you, also.


© 2004 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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