Two scourges of our present-day world, Alzheimer's and Dementia, are often mentioned interchangeably. My confusion about the difference between the two led me to investigate. Dr. Gerald Morris, a seasoned internal medicine physician, along with authorities at The Mayo Clinic, provides the following definitions: "Dementia isn't a disease, it's a syndrome, which is defined as something that occurs when a group of symptoms doesn't lead to a specific diagnosis. It's a general term used to describe symptoms that impede memory, the performance of daily activities and communication skills. Alzheimer's, on the other hand, is a disease."
While dementia can strike young people, Alzheimer's primarily affects the elderly and is progressive. There are four types of dementia: Alzheimer's, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal degeneration. Alzheimer's disease is a cause of dementia, but it is not a syndrome — it is a progressive neurological disease. I hope this clarifies things.
It's probably because of being at the forefront of the Baby Boomer generation, but my husband and I know a lot of people who are affected by either dementia or Alzheimer's. Heartbreakingly, they all happen to be smart and talented, making their affliction seem particularly cruel — for them and those of us standing helplessly on the sidelines.
A case in point is my husband's longtime best friend, Jack, whom he met in Vietnam eons ago. Jack was my husband's commanding officer in the Army, and we became friends with him and his wife when he returned home from the war. Jack went on to become a two-star general, eventually retired from the Army and became a personal advisor to several U.S. presidents. Besides being reliable, kind and supportive, he is probably the brightest and most talented man we know. He is a true and much-loved friend.
Then, about ten years ago, Jack began to change. They were small changes at first, but over a short period, his memory worsened, and he had more and more trouble functioning. Unable to care for him anymore, his wife found a place for him in a veteran's facility, where he still languishes ten years later. Our friend now speaks in his own language. We think he still recognizes us when we visit, but we cannot communicate with him.
There are others. Too many others. There's Rob, a friend of 40 years, who once stayed with us for six months, played guitar with my husband and built us beautiful hardwood floors; there's Cliff, my husband's fraternity brother whom we traveled with to Spain two years ago and who is now in a care facility; then Bart, whom I have known since high school and who is my longtime email buddy. His missives started to seem nonsensical a few months ago, and his wife recently wrote to tell me he has dementia; and Will, a friend who breeds champion dogs and gave us our beloved labs and German shepherds. The list is long and contains too many friends lost in the abyss.
I asked my doctor-husband whether there are more neurological illnesses now than previously, or are we just more aware? He responded that we had come a long way in treating diseases that routinely killed people in the old days, so now people are living longer, i.e., long enough to develop diseases of the mind. That's possible, but we don't know for sure. Both conditions, dementia and its sub-category Alzheimer's disease, can be devastating to the people afflicted, as well as their families and loved ones. In the great game of baseball, a player sliding into home base does so with furious alacrity and tremendous speed. In the great game of life, dementia is the slow and sad slide home.
That's a very gloomy prospect. So what's to be done? According to the Mayo Clinic experts, what's on the horizon is not particularly encouraging. Current treatments temporarily improve symptoms of memory loss, thinking and reasoning. But these treatments don't stop the underlying decline and brain cell mortality. A number of drugs are being vigorously tested, but a cure seems elusive.
One bright spot in all this is that there is some evidence that exercise and a heart-healthy diet may prevent the onset of Alzheimer's in the first place. That, coupled with the real effort being made to speed the development of effective therapies, give us hope for an eventual cure.
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