Learn more about Alzheimer's during awareness month

November is here, which means the holidays are right around the corner. It also means that it is “Alzheimer’s Awareness” month. During the month of November our agency, Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska (ARA) doubles efforts to raise awareness about the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. We believe that education is empowering. The more people know about and understand the disease, the more they are able to help people living with cognitive challenges at home and in their communities.

Americans are living longer than ever before. With our longer lifespans, older adults are at an increased risk of developing a chronic condition or a cognitive disorder. As we age, we often wonder what is normal and what is not. One place to start is with a non-diagnostic memory screening. Memory screenings can reveal whether what you are experiencing is normal or if there is cause to visit your doctor for further examination. ARA provides these non-diagnostic memory screenings at no cost to you.

Dementia or Alzheimer’s? Is there a difference?

One question we are often asked is what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? We hear and see a lot about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in the news, on the radio and in magazines. It can be confusing. These two terms are often used interchangeably but that’s not entirely accurate.

Here’s the simple fact: Everyone who has Alzheimer’s disease has dementia, but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s disease.

What is dementia?

Dementia isn’t a specific disease. Instead, dementia is a term used to describe a group or collection of signs or symptoms caused by a disease or condition. Someone exhibiting

dementia is having significant problems with thought processes, and these processes are referred to as “cognitive functions”. Dementia means that certain cognitive functions, such as a person’s memory, language ability, visual and spatial abilities, or judgment, are impaired severely enough to interfere with a person’s daily life.

A wide variety of diseases and conditions can cause dementia. One of the most common is Alzheimer’s disease. Other diseases that can cause dementia include vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Frontotemporal dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. These types of dementias, along with Alzheimer’s disease, are not reversible. Other causes of dementia symptoms may be attributed to a variety of causes: a reaction to medications, an infection, brain tumor, thyroid deficiency, a nutritional deficiency or other diseases. These dementias are often reversible with the appropriate treatment.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in people 65 or older. According to the National Institute on Aging, more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that begins gradually and progresses over time. It causes nerve cells in the brain to degenerate and their communication pathways to break down. The main symptom is memory loss but Alzheimer’s is more than memory loss. Alzheimer’s also results in impaired thinking, declining abstract reasoning skills, poor judgment, changes in personality, and the inability to plan and perform routine tasks of daily living. The disease may run from two to 20 years after the first signs appear.

Currently, there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s, so it is important to know the warning signs, understand the disease, and seek support as early as possible.

The 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease

Memory loss that disrupts daily life

Challenges in planning or solving problems

Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure

Confusion with time or place

Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships

New problems with words in speaking and writing

Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps

Decreased or poor judgment

Withdrawal from work or social activities

Changes in mood and personality

(From Alzheimer’s Association, “Know the 10 Signs—Early Detection Matters”)

Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia can cause a lot of anxiety and worry, especially as we age. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or related dementias can be very challenging for the person who has been diagnosed, as well as for family members. When people living with dementia are treated with respect, empathy, flexibility and support, they are better able to cope with the challenges in their lives. The same is also true for family caregivers.

Throughout the year we offer education, awareness and resources to people living with dementia and their caregivers. Raising awareness reduces the stigma often associated with dementia; it also spreads knowledge and acceptance. As a community we want everyone to feel respected, understood and supported.

Janice Downing is an Educational Specialist with Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska. During Alzheimer’s Awareness Month you can learn more about Alzheimer’s and related dementias, dementia care, and November Awareness events by visiting http://www.alzalaska.org or calling 1-800-478-1080.