Explaining dementia & Alzheimer’s, and what you can do

There are an estimated 44 million people currently living with dementia around the world and this number is set to reach 130 million by 2050. (x) As healthcare recruitment professionals placing staff into elderly and dementia care homes every day, we think it’s important to know about dementia itself, and we wanted to share some of that with you!

What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

“The word ‘dementia’ describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These changes are often small to start with, but for someone with dementia they have become severe enough to affect daily life. A person with dementia may also experience changes in their mood or behaviour.” (x)

That’s the basics of it. Dementia is not an ‘old people’s thing’, but is triggered by diseases damaging the brain. The most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease, but it can also be caused by a series of strokes and other diseases, for example infections (like HIV), Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

Alzheimer’s, however, is a progressive disease of the brain that slowly causes impairment in memory and cognitive function. During the course of the disease, proteins build up in the brain to form structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. This leads to the loss of connections between nerve cells, and eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue. (x)

Why is Alzheimer’s effect on memory so unpredictable?

There are two reasons for this. Memory loss is a common and the most widely known symptom of Alzheimer’s, however symptoms vary depending on what part(s) of the brain are damaged.

Secondly, there are different types of memory: episodic, semantic and procedural memory are stored in the long term store, and retrieved to the short term store when needed.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. Short-term memory, or the ability of hold information in mind in an active, instantly-retrievable store is affected first. Next to deteriorate is episodic memory or memory of autobiographical events, after that semantic memory, or meanings of words and facts about the world. The last to go is procedural memory, or how to perform tasks and skills. This is why people who have Alzheimer’s usually know how to perform everyday tasks and can even pick up new skills, like knitting — their procedural memory remains intact the longest. However, eventually all reasoning, attention, and language abilities are disrupted.

elderly man reading a newspaper titled "The Good Life"

Can dementia/Alzheimer’s be cured?

Since dementia is caused by different diseases, it is unlikely that there will be a single cure for dementia. Nor is there a cure for Alzheimer’s yet. The research has been aimed at finding cures for dementia-causing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. (x)

A vast amount of research is done in the UK and worldwide. Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society are perhaps the two biggest charities in the country, the first devoted to research, the second acting as a funding body for research as well as providing services for those affected and their families, information and working on prevention.

Prevention, then, is an important field of research for a ‘cure’. For example, a recent study demonstrated getting too little sleep increases your risk of Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, another study showed that heart disease as well as cardiovascular risk factors, particularly if they manifest in midlife, are associated with the eventual development of dementia, and early prevention and treatment could potentially mitigate the onset of dementia. (x)

What can I do?

The first step is educating yourself. By reaching this point of the article, you’ve completed that first step, congratulations!

Now you could look into getting involved. You could become a Dementia Friend. You could raise some money for a dementia or Alzheimer’s charity. You could volunteer at a care home. For those extra committed, you could study to become a nurse, work in a care home, work for a dementia charity. . .we are going to share our own steps towards action in a blog post coming soon!