Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Facts to Know

DementiaAccording to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans—two-thirds of them women—are living with Alzheimer’s today. One in three senior citizens dies with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. The organization estimates that, by 2050, the number of people 65 years or older could conceivably triple.

For such a common disease that affects so many, most people don’t know much about Alzheimer’s and dementia—other than how much they fear it. We spoke to Dr. Therese Meyer-Cox, a neuropsychologist with Memorial Medical Center’s Neurosciences department, about what exactly dementia and Alzheimer’s are—and how families can cope.

Is there a difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

Dementia is an overarching term that describes certain cognitive problems. Alzheimer’s is actually just one of several forms of dementia. Other types include vascular dementia or dementia related to Parkinson’s disease.

What makes Alzheimer’s so scary?

While Alzheimer’s is as equally impairing as other types of dementia, other types aren’t as quick to progress. Additionally, other types of dementia have the potential to be slowed, such as by treating the causing factors of vascular issues or Parkinson’s. No such treatment or cure exists for Alzheimer’s.

“With Alzheimer’s, there is no way to stop it, so it’s devastating,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said.

Why are we seeing so much more Alzheimer’s now than before?

There’s a simple explanation for that—we’re living longer.

“Before, people were only living into their 60s,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said. “Now there is much more time to develop dementia or other cognitive impairments.”

How do physicians test for Alzheimer’s?

That’s the tricky part about Alzheimer’s—unlike other forms of dementia, there is no test to diagnose it (at least not while the patient is alive).

“Vascular dementia can be indicated by other vascular problems, and it is visible on a CT or MRI. Parkinson’s-related dementia is indicated by Parkinson’s. But Alzheimer’s doesn’t show up on tests—it’s only definitively diagnosed after death,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said. “What physicians and neuropsychologists do is rule out other types and determine a fairly specific pattern of cognitive abilities that corresponds with what we know about Alzheimer’s.”

I’ve heard about early-onset dementia. How common is that?

Fortunately, early-onset dementia (usually occurring in one’s 50s or 60s) is pretty rare.

“There is a strong genetic component to early onset,” Dr. Meyer-Cox said. “A family member was likely diagnosed early as well.”

For most people, signs of dementia start in their late 60s or early 70s.

Is Alzheimer’s fatal?

While many people die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, fatality is co-occurring, meaning the Alzheimer’s itself doesn’t necessarily cause death.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s and dementia.