The terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer's disease” are used quite frequently and oftentimes interchangeably. You probably have a general idea of what these terms reference. However, you may be a bit confused as to what the difference is between them. Let's take an in-depth look at Alzheimer's disease including risks and protective factors, the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease in the United States, and ways to treat it.
Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia Defined
When you think of dementia, it is helpful to think of it as a broad term used to describe a regression in cognitive ability that is severe enough to negatively impact your ability to function daily and to think of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as a specific type of dementia. Similar to how a dog is used to describe an animal, there are specific breeds that fall under the dog classification. Many people use dementia to describe AD and other neurogenerative disorders. For purposes of this piece, dementia and Alzheimer's disease will be used interchangeably.
Neurogenerative disorders, such as AD, refer to an impairment in your cognition, reasoning/judgment, and memory, and symptoms vary based on the type of dementia and other individualized factors. Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease (AD) can range in severity and the individual and can include:
- Poor memory
- Poor judgment
- Difficulty speaking
- Problems understanding and expressing thoughts, reading, and/or writing
- Problems paying bills and handling money
- Getting lost in familiar areas or wandering aimlessly
- Difficulty recalling words to familiar things or using odd words to describe them
- Taking an extensive amount of time to complete normal activities of daily living
- Experiencing paranoia or hallucinations
- Behaving impulsively or erratically
- Loss of balance and problems with physical movements
- Not having care or concern for other people’s emotions
- Anhedonia (loss of interest in once enjoyable activities)
- Repeating questions
AD is the most common form of dementia and other common neurogenerative disorders include:
- Lewy body dementia
- Vascular dementia
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Mixed dementia
- Vascular dementia
Prevalence of Alzheimer's Disease
If you or someone you love may be experiencing symptoms of AD or any form of dementia, you are not alone. As of 2021, research shows that approximately 6.2 million people in the United States 65 years old and above are suffering from AD. It is estimated that by 2060, that number could be as high as 13.8 million. Unfortunately, many people pass away from Alzheimer’s each year. In 2019, AD was the fifth leading cause of death for individuals 65 and older and the sixth leading cause of death for the general population; 121,499 death certificates indicate AD is the cause of death. The rate of deaths related to AD is increasing at a significant rate. Between 2000 and 2019, deaths from AD increased by 145%, which was higher than heart disease and stroke.
Risk Factors for Alzheimer's Disease
Dementia can be thought of as a brain disorder. More specifically, AD occurs when the nerves in the brain stop functioning properly, lose connection with other nerves in the brain, and eventually parish. Keep in mind that everyone loses brain cells as we age. However, individuals with dementia like AD lose brain cells at a much more rapid rate. Contrary to what you may think, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process, and millions of people age without experiencing symptoms of dementia.
Certain factors may make you more likely to develop dementia as you age. These symptoms include:
- Biological predisposition: Having immediate family members, such as siblings or parents, develop dementia makes you more likely to experience symptoms of dementia.
- Ethnicity and race: Studies show that Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia and African Americans are twice as likely to develop dementia than Caucasians.
- Age: Being 65 years of age or older is a risk factor for dementia.
- Poor health: Experiencing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other heart complications can increase your risk.
- Smoking: Research shows that smoking increases your risk for dementia.
- Traumatic brain injury: Severe and/or chronic brain injuries can increase your risk.
- Loneliness: Research shows that loneliness and social isolation can actually increase your risk of developing dementia by as much as 50%.
Additionally, social and behavioral factors combined with genetic risk factors can increase your risk of developing dementia. These factors include:
- Experiencing trauma
- Socioeconomic status
- Mental health disorders
- Exercise/physical activity
- Education level
- Lifestyle behaviors including exercise and diet
Not everyone who experiences one or more of these risk factors will develop dementia or AD and no two people are alike. Many factors combine to increase your risk for dementia.
Protective Factors for Alzheimer's Disease
While more research is needed, current research suggests that as much as 40% of your risk of developing dementia is impacted by changeable risk factors. What that means is that you can significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia and/or slowing the progression of the disease by making certain lifestyle changes. Factors that influence the development, severity of symptoms, and progression of AD may surprise you. Many studies have shown a strong correlation between physical exercise and dementia.
Among all of the behavioral and lifestyle factors that have been researched, regular physical exercise is one of the most influential in the development and progression of dementia. Research on the impact of physical exercise and dementia shows that:
- Many studies show a reduction in dementia symptoms and an improvement in memory and cognition in the elderly and middle-aged adults.
- Regular exercise shows a reduction in the development of dementia in middle-aged and older adults.
- Increasing the amount of physical activity can actually work to prevent dementia in the elderly.
- Exercise improves and reduces the symptoms of dementia due to the positive impact exercise has on mood and mental health.
- It is believed that physical exercise may decrease cognitive regression.
- For individuals experiencing cognitive regression, exercise can help improve symptoms and cognitive functioning.
- Exercise can help improve other non-cognitive symptoms of dementia such as anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
Experts recommend a combination of different exercise regimes to receive the most benefit. It is recommended that you engage in a combination of strength training (resistance), endurance (aerobic), balance, and flexibility exercises. If you are thinking about incorporating more exercise into your lifestyle, start small and work your way up. Talk to your doctor about exercises that are appropriate for you based on your age, physical abilities, and other individualized factors. You don’t have to invest a lot of money to improve your health and reduce your risk for AD.
YouTube offers many free workouts that are specific to your age group and the type of exercise you are looking for. You can start by going for a leisurely walk and you can use items around your home when you engage in strength training exercises like soup cans or milk jugs. Still unsure about where to start? Ask your doctor for a referral for a personal trainer who specializes in working with individuals your age.
Additional protective factors include:
- Discuss with your doctor any medications you are taking that may be impacting your cognitive and/or emotional functioning.
- Manage health conditions that can contribute to the development of dementia symptoms such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Engage in lifelong learning by taking a class, reading books, or learning a new skill.
- Engage in social activities with others.
- Maintain healthy sleep hygiene and get help if you are experiencing a sleep disorder.
How Is Dementia Diagnosed?
If you think you or someone you love may be experiencing symptoms of AD, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will give you a comprehensive evaluation to determine whether or not you meet the criteria for dementia. Your doctor may also perform:
- Blood tests
- A psychological evaluation
- Brain scan
- Cerebrospinal fluid tests
- Genetic tests
Unfortunately, there is no cure for AD. However, as we’ve learned, you can take steps to help improve the symptoms of AD, reduce the progression, and reduce your risk of developing dementia. Talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce the risk or improve symptoms of dementia. Together, you can create a treatment plan that works for you. Your doctor may recommend making lifestyle changes such as increasing your physical activity and other treatment options such as medication.
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Jacquelyn Buffo began writing at the age of 10 when she won a county-wide essay contest explaining why her mother is worth her weight in gold. Since that time, she has written for several newspapers and a health and wellness blog. Her education and experience is in mental health and addiction. She is a licensed counselor and currently provides therapeutic services on an outpatient basis. Her counseling and substance abuse experience includes inpatient residential, in-home, and early recovery counseling. She is a certified addiction specialist and is working on obtaining her certification in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. She also specializes in working with pregnant and post-partum women and has received advanced training on women's health.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). About dementia.
- National Institute on Aging. (2022). What is dementia? Symptoms, types, and diagnosis.
- National Library of Medicine. (2021). 2021 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Loneliness and social isolation linked to serious health conditions.
- National Library of Medicine. (2021). Reducing the impact of dementia in America: A decade survey of behavioral and social sciences.
- Cheng, Y.C., Liu, H.Y.., Su, C.H., & Wang, S. (2021). Exercise dosage in reducing the risk of dementia development: mode, duration, and intensity- A narrative review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(24).