Ever wondered, "What exactly is the difference between Alzheimer's disease & dementia?&


It seems that with each passing day I encounter someone whose life is being affected by some form of dementia. Most often these encounters involve individuals who are struggling with the baffling changes he/she has begun observing in a loved one and is unsure how to proceed with securing an accurate diagnosis. At other times, these encounters involve another caregiver struggling to make a whole host of life-altering decisions with high-stakes consequences -- not only for their ill loved one but also for their own financial future as well. The more I openly share that I am a caregiver to my father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, I find that others feel empowered to share their suspicions that their loved one may be ill or that they are in fact a caregiver too. Through these conversations, the stigma of shame is deemphasized (for the prospective patient) and the unnecessary solitary watch of the caregiver can be shared.

This consistently positive experience, and sense of helping to build a larger support & information network, simply confirms that I am fulfilling my purpose even through this challenging season of life. I recently viewed a TEDx talk given by Tracy McMillan (from TEDx Olympic Blvd Women series) in which she stated, "The places where you have your biggest challenges in life become the places where you have the most to give..." As a result of my family's challenge with Alzheimer's, (or journey as I prefer to refer to it), I have posed the following questions to myself: "What do I have to give? What is the purpose I am now charged to fulfill?" Well, that purpose is two-fold -- (1) to provide encouragement along the unavoidable grief journey associated with loss of good health, caregiving or physical loss of a loved one and (2) to provide community education.

In my last two posts, "I'm Coming Out" and "Honor Them In Life," I have endeavored to encourage other caregivers by authentically sharing my family's journey thus far with Alzheimer's disease -- how we are adjusting, making shifts in our understanding and thought processes, and celebrating our blessings (which are very much still present). However, today I feel it important to focus on the second objective of Peaceful Journeys, to educate or serve as an information resource to caregivers and the community-at-large -- who stand to in-turn serve in a much needed support capacity to affected families. Therefore, today I want to address one of the most basic yet common questions surrounding the topic of Alzheimer's disease and dementia: "What exactly is the difference between Alzheimer's disease and dementia?"

Not long ago my mother, Gloria Jacobs, shared with me the excellent metaphor she used recently to explain the nuances of these two medical terms (too often used interchangeably) to another confused individual. First, visualize an umbrella. Dementia represents the umbrella itself. Therefore, dementia is the generic medical term used to indicate the chronic memory loss which progressively impacts the completion of normal daily tasks and independent functioning. Then, falling (from) underneath the umbrella of dementia are the various forms of dementia-related neurological diseases (i.e., Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, etc.)-- each with its own underlying cause and specific subset of symptoms.

With over 5 million Americans suffering with Alzheimer's disease -- "the most common form of dementia accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all [dementia] cases," it is incumbent upon individuals/communities-at-large to be well-informed about this illness adversely affecting so many lives.1 Alzheimer's disease, caused by an overgrowth of amyloid plaque deposits in the brain, leads to necrosis (or death of nerve cells within the brain