Trends in aging: There is a difference between Alzheimer's, dementia

By Wendy McHaney
Oct. 11, 2013 at 5:11 a.m.

Alzheimer's disease is the focus of my next several columns, in which I will discuss the warning signs, various stages, care and treatment and resources for those facing a future with Alzheimer's or caring for someone with the disease. This is an introduction to the disease itself and how it differs from other dementias.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia among people aged 65 and older. It is not a normal part of aging but actually a progressive, degenerative disorder resulting in memory loss, thinking and language skills and behavioral changes.

It is estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer's disease, and the incidence of the disease is rising in line with the aging population. Even though Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging, the risk of developing the illness rises with advanced age, the prevalence of which doubles every five years beyond age 65. However, five percent of people with the disease have early onset Alzheimer's, with warning signs first appearing in the 40s or 50s.

Unlike other dementias, Alzheimer's worsens over time. Memory loss is mild in the early stages, but in late stages, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment.

Alzheimer's patients live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years. Currently, Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

Alzheimer's disease can cause the brain the shrink to one-third its original size, and all parts of the brain are affected, including the surface and the inside.

As the brain decreases in size, the affected person can no longer hold on to new memories, but particularly old emotional memories, often remain intact.

The left side of the brain, which controls the ability to understand language and the meaning and intent of a phrase, is affected the most. A person with the disease loses the ability to talk and speak and has particular difficulty with nouns.

Although they may lose the ability for deep conversational speech, automatic social chitchat is often unaffected until the later stages because the right side of the brain is somewhat preserved.

Because rhythm and expletives are stored in the right side of the brain, an Alzheimer's patient may be able to sing when they can't talk or use expletives inappropriately. Even patients in the final stages may respond to music from their youth.

If you are caring for someone with Alzheimer's, Senior Helpers hosts a weekly workshop and support group at Copperfield Village, which is free and open to the public. These hour long workshops are at 10:15 a.m. every Thursday.

Sources: Alzheimer's Foundation of America, Alzheimer's Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The National Institute on Aging, and Teepa Snow, dementia care and dementia education specialist.

Wendy McHaney is a certified senior adviser and the owner and director of operations of Senior Helpers. For more information about Senior Helpers, visit



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