What is dementia, anyway?

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I like to put a review of “the basics” up on my blog every so often. There is a lot of confusion over what dementia actually is. A lot of people ask me, “What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?” 

Here’s the true (and very simple) answer: Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. That’s it!

If you go to the doctor, and the doctor says that you have cancer, what’s your next question? You SHOULD ask the doctor, “What type of cancer is it?” You wouldn’t leave the doctor without that information, would you?

Unfortunately, a lot of people leave the doctor after a dementia diagnosis without any further information. Dementia is an umbrella term, much like cancer is an umbrella term. There are many types of cancer, and there are many types of dementia (some say over 70 or even 100 types) so it’s best to see a neurologist or geriatrician for an accurate diagnosis.

Dementia just means cognitive loss over time. What’s cognitive loss, you ask? Any bad, noticeable brain changes like: mood changes, memory, visual and spatial awareness, word-finding, speaking, ability to walk, eat, bathe, and do things independently. All of these things are symptoms of cognitive loss.

Don’t panic if you don’t have a type of dementia diagnosis for your loved one. Many people don’t. If you are interested in getting one, I recommend going to a neurologist or geriatrician’s office. These appointments will take a few hours because they do a lot of different tests: a brain scan, a physical exam, memory and mental status testing, etc. For many people, however, more information is worth it.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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