Edited by Tasmiyah Randeree
Over the past few years, a few of my older relatives have started to lose their memory along with a few basic functions. They often forget the names of their own children and grandchildren and as painful a reality as this has been to face, I decided to take a deeper look into what was going on so that I could better understand my relatives. I wanted to know what dementia was, how it was different from Alzheimer’s and the long-term impact these sicknesses had on individuals as those surrounding them.
What is dementia?
Dementia is not exactly a disease. It’s a condition that can be caused by a variety of different diseases. Its symptoms usually include difficulties with remembering details, thinking, language and problem-solving, and can make everyday activities very difficult to complete. These symptoms are caused by brain cells slowly degenerating which happens typically with old age. Dementia can be caused by head injuries, Parkinson’s, strokes, and Alzheimer’s. These diseases have some similarities in the type of dementia they cause but some also have their own specified symptoms. Dementia-like symptoms can also be produced by vitamin deficiencies and mental illness. Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (dementia after a stroke) are the two most common types of dementia.
What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
This is a question asked by many people. Alzheimer’s disease is actually a type of dementia. It’s caused by neurons in the brain that are dying at a faster rate than is normal. A key indication of Alzheimer’s on the brain is clumps of unusual proteins between neurons called amyloid plaques. So, while it presents the symptoms of dementia, Alzheimer’s presents these symptoms at a much more severe rate, leading to mood changes, intense confusion about a person’s whereabouts and suspicions and fears about those surrounding them. A reduction in functions such as walking and swallowing might also appear.
Another aspect of Alzheimer’s disease is that it is not a natural part of ageing. In fact, about 5% of those with Alzheimer’s have younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which affects those under 65 years old. Alzheimer’s is also believed to be a genetic disease; those whose relatives once had it can experience it too as a result of their inherited genes.
As of now, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, no way to slow its progression nor is there a way to prevent it from occurring. However, there are some drugs and therapies which help treat immediate symptoms. These include drugs and treatments for memory loss, sleep, and behavioural changes. There are some studies that have found potential treatments, which address unusual physical changes in the brain due to Alzheimer’s, both within and between neurons. However, it may not be possible to have a complete “cure” which would bring the brain back to working at full capacity, as the damage done by the disease is extreme and somewhat permanent. A cure may only stop the brain from deteriorating any further. In any case, this is much better considering that there is currently no way to slow or prevent the disease from occurring, and patients usually only live for an average of 8 years after diagnosis.
The impact of dementia on the patient and those surrounding them
A dementia diagnosis can cause many heavy emotions for patients. They may experience fear, shock, and even anger at their condition. Having now done my research on this topic, its easy to understand why a person with dementia might feel this way and why so many individuals fall into depression, anxiety and have a hard time talking about their experience.
Dementia can also have an impact on the loved ones of a patient. Family members and caregivers may feel guilt, loss and even anger whilst dealing with the consequences of their loved one’s condition. Loved ones may feel intense sadness at the loss of the person they knew and loved, and sometimes frustration at the patients’ changing behaviour due to their condition.
I have personally experienced this; seeing loved ones completely forget my name and my relation to them as they lose their strong, bold personality and become almost unrecognizable, engaging in odd behaviourism that makes no sense to me, it’s very painful to watch.
The bottom line is that dementia has a huge impact on a person and their environment. It is heartbreaking to watch, even more so when you don’t know much about dementia and so you cant help. By learning and sharing information about the condition, families can gain a better understanding and may be able to better help their loved one experiencing dementia. Alzheimer’s is even more devastating due to its steep impact and the fact that it is not only limited to those who are ageing. Having conversations and doing research about the symptoms can go a long way in preparing for the disease’s consequences, whether it be prepping the patient or their loved ones.