Although Alzheimer's is just one form of the illness, it is often used as a blanket definition for dementia and the two are understandably often confused by caregivers, families, and patients themselves. It's easy to see why. With massive research ongoing, ten different forms of the illness have been isolated, many of which are the result of other medical conditions. How effective treatment is, and one's life expectancy after diagnosis, will depend on the cause of the illness, and speed of early treatment.
According to online Oxford Dictionaries dementia is; 'A chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning.'
The National Institute of Aging (NIA) defines the illness as; 'Dementia is a brain disorder that affects communication and performance of daily activities, and Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that specifically affects parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language.'
Based on these definitions, it's easy to see where confusion arises, with the symptoms of both being so closely related.
Treatment of the illness, and ways to increase life expectancy eat up large proportions of medical research budgets in countries across the world. It is estimated that in 2015 nearly 45-million people worldwide were suffering from dementia. Frighteningly, in the same report, of that 45-million, only one in four had actually been diagnoses with the illness. And that 45-million is set to double in the next 20 years, and double again in the following 20 years.
Much of the reason for this increase is world populations are living longer, especially in more affluent areas of the globe. Although an illness which generally affects the over 65s, the term senile-dementia is not so often used as it was in the past. Improved diagnosis has meant that larger numbers of people below that age are being diagnosed, and while that's a worrying trend, it's also one which should lead to earlier treatment and an increased lifespan.
The financial cost of caring for those suffering from the illness also plays a large part in the funding of institutions involved in looking for ways to reduce or reverse the effects of the disease.
Worldwide in 2015, it was estimated the total cost of caring for suffers both professionally, and by family and friends, was a staggering US$605 billion, that's over 1% of global GDP.
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom. With advances already made in medical science, high tech scanners, and a greater understanding of how the brain works, diagnosis and treatment are improving; that in turn should improve the life expectancy of a greater number of patients.
Early diagnosis of the type of dementia being suffered is improving all the time due to the technological advances made in medical equipment. New scanners which provide far more accurate information about which parts of the brain are affected by different forms of the illness, allow for treatment to be started far earlier than it was 30 years ago.
Life expectancy varies considerably. The patient's health prior to diagnosis plays a big part; the healthier one is the longer the projected life expectancy. Between men and women, and whether one is married or single, appears to make little difference although of those suffering Alzheimer's or related illnesses it's been estimated two-thirds are women.
Although of little consolation to anyone who is, or has nursed and cared for someone through the later stages of the disease, especially when recognition of partner or close family members disappears, the median age for the onset of the disease was 84 years for women with death at 90 years. For men the average age was 83 years, and 87 at death. That is longer than the average healthy UK lifespan for men of 81 years, and 83 years for women.
None of us want to go through our later years consciously worrying about where we've put our phone, or whether we've fed the cat. They are the type of forgetful episodes everyone has through life, from nine to ninety. However, if these types of situations are becoming more frequent, or remembering which way a shirt or blouse buttons-up, or forgetting the vegetables are boiling out of water, or not being able to remember whether you've just got up, or are just going to bed becomes a regular occurrence, then a visit to the doctor would be a good idea.
Partners or regular family visitors may well notice these lapses before the person concerned, and contacting one of the many organisations set up to help and advise those showing early signs of the illness should be undertaken as quickly as possible.
Although cognitive issues may be becoming a problem, dementia sufferers still have the capacity to enjoy life, to be able to laugh and interact with others, as they try to make some sense of a strange new world. Early diagnosis will help improve their quality of life and increase life expectancy.