This blog stresses over and over that not all dementias are Alzheimer’s Disease (Alzheimer’s Disease is but a single type of dementia), but the Alzheimer’s Association has been quite effective at leading most people to believe that all cognitive impairment and subsequent neurological degeneration is Alzheimer’s Disease.
Not only is this general belief false, but it is also potentially very dangerous to our loved ones with dementia.
Because each type of dementia affects different areas of the brain in different ways (the big-picture journey through dementias follows a similar trajectory), managing the symptomatic and behavioral details of each step’s progression are highly dependent on the type(s) of dementia – and what area of and how the brain is impacted – that our loved ones are experiencing.
Dementias management and care is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
The Alzheimer’s Association has therefore, in my opinion, done a huge disservice to the general population and to caregivers and their loved ones by bombarding the world with the idea that everyone with cognitive impairment and neurological decline has Alzheimer’s Disease.
A recent long-term study discovered that a mixture of neurological changes leads to the eventual development of dementia.
Alzheimer’s Disease shrinks the size of the brain, essentially fossilizing the brain’s structure, but all the other neurological degenerative disease processes related to the development of dementia occur within the mass of the brain itself and more directly affect specific and distinct parts of cognition and behavior.
The study, which followed 1,100 people from diagnoses to death, identified five types of neurological degenerative conditions: Alzheimer’s Disease, Lewy bodies, hippocampal sclerosis, microinfarcts, and low brain weight.
What the study found is quite revealing.
While a single neurological degenerative condition could give rise to the eventual development of cognitive impairment and dementia, having more than one of these neurological degenerative conditions simultaneously not only multiplies the risk (as well as the severity of damage to the brain as a whole) of developing cognitive impairment and dementia, but also speeds up the degenerative process leading to dementia and death.
In other words, the more of these degenerative neurological conditions that coexist, the greater – and harder – the load and impact on the whole brain is and the more rapidly death occurs.
This research gives a lot of insight into why there is often so much disparity in severity and longevity of our loved ones with dementia.
My mom had vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. While her cognitive function – more in areas of judgment and keeping track of things – showed some changes as she got into her mid-70’s, in general, she was able to function quite well most of the time until the last three months of 2009, when the baffling, out-of-the-blue ups and downs began in earnest, and the first half of 2010, when the declines were steep, fast, and furious.
Mama was having a lot of TIA’s (many more than I actually witnessed, I am positive, but the increase and frequency of them that I saw when I was with her seriously alarmed me) in that period of time.
I knew what TIA’s were, because Mama had experienced them all my life, but they, until that period, were relatively infrequent – although they always scared me (but I always remained calm and unruffled for Mama) from the moment they started to the 30 minutes or more until all the symptoms associated with them (aphasia was but one) were gone – and were related to her experiencing high levels of stress.
But when I saw Mama having TIA’s on a regular basis (several times a day and, at times, within an hour of each other), I knew something was very wrong.
When things got so bad that I knew something – and somebody else had to do it – had to be done, I found out from Mama’s P.A. that he suspected vascular dementia (a brain scan confirmed that diagnosis). Within three months, Mama was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Within a month of that diagnosis, it was clear to me that she also had Lewy Body dementia.
Mama died about two and a half years after her first dementia diagnosis (in so many ways I’m very thankful that most of the worst of her journey through these degenerative neurological diseases was short, although its rapidity tested both our limits during the duration).
On the other hand, my best friend’s mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2006 and has lived, without much quality of life, to be sure, for the last few years, for almost ten years since her diagnosis.
It certainly doesn’t mean that my best friend’s mom doesn’t have comorbidity with degenerative neurological disease, but I suspect that the overall burden on her mom’s brain may be somewhat less than the overall burden on my mom’s brain.
We must constantly be educating ourselves thoroughly, diligently distinguishing fact from fiction, about these neurological degenerative conditions, diseases, and processes.
They are becoming and will continue to become (mainly because of our lifestyle choices, including deteriorating sleep habits, increasing alcohol and drug abuse, and our movement toward 24/7 addiction to technology that are significantly increasing the likelihood of their appearance and development) more prevalent and pervasive, affecting more and more of us.
We cannot afford to fail our loved ones – or ourselves – by remaining ignorant, falling for hype, and succumbing to lies from all the modern day snake oil salespeople who claim to have “cures,” but are really just looking to take a whole lot of money out of our pockets because we’re so gullible that we’ve swallowed their silver bullet promises hook, line, and sinker.