According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life.” There are many types of dementia such as Lewy Body Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia, and Vascular Dementia; however, the most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are used interchangeably by the general public. However, Alzheimer’s disease is a cause of dementia whereas dementia is a syndrome that encompasses many different symptoms.
Dementia is not considered a part of normal aging. Some common signs of dementia include: memory loss, getting lost in familiar locations or forgetting the way home, forgetting the names of family or friends, increased socially inappropriate behavior, difficulty understanding speech, and difficulty planning or organizing tasks such as keeping track of monthly bills.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by the prevalence of amyloid plaques or tau tangles. These plaques and tangles affect healthy neurons and the fibers that connect them which leads to harmful brain changes that worsen over time. Since this disease usually affects the part of the brain associated with learning, an early sign of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering new information. As Alzheimer’s progresses, daily tasks such as walking and speaking become very difficult.
Although clinical research has yet to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, there are drug options that treat dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Cholinesterase inhibitors block the natural breakdown of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for learning and memory. Since people affected by Alzheimer’s disease have low levels of acetylcholine, cholinesterase inhibitors work to prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine which increases the concentration level of acetylcholine in the brain. Cholinesterase inhibitors are mainly prescribed to individuals with mild to moderate symptoms and are proven to show moderate improvements in cognitive function.
Memantine (Namenda) is a drug used to treat moderate to severe cases of Alzheimer’s. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that is often found in excess in Alzheimer’s patients which leads to nerve degeneration within the brain. Memantine is known to decrease the negative effects of excess glutamate, thereby slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.