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What are dementia, Alzheimer’s and memory loss? Are they all the same? The short answer is no, they are not the same. Surprised? A lot of folks are surprised by this. At Landis Homes, we are leading the way in dispelling the myth that memory loss is equal to dementia or Alzheimer’s.

When it comes to these terms, there is so much information available that it can be confusing to understand. Let’s see if we can clear things up a bit.

Dementia is an umbrella term, covering both chemical and structural changes in the brain. There are over 100 different types, forms and causes under this umbrella.  Alzheimer’s is one of them. Dementia (no matter what type) affects the brain’s ability to process or understand information. When someone has dementia, or Alzheimer’s (one type of dementia) it often looks like someone has memory loss. The key is that memory loss does not equal dementia and does not equal Alzheimer’s. Memory loss is smaller than Alzheimer’s which is smaller than Dementia.

Looking at the graphic above can help clear things up. Dementia is the bigger umbrella; Alzheimer’s is one of the types of dementia and memory loss is something that can occur because of dementia. Memory loss can also occur with head injuries, infections, medications, thyroid, liver, or kidney problems. Memory loss can even be from sleep problems or dehydration. Dementia affects visual processing, auditory processing, wayfinding, impulse control, sequencing, logic and so much more, in addition to memory loss.

Take a moment to pause, breathe and reflect on some good news. If you forget to pick up an item at the grocery store, misplace your car keys, can’t remember someone’s name, you are in good company – we have all been there! Those forgetful moments do not automatically mean memory loss or that you have dementia or Alzheimer’s.

The brain is responsible for keeping the body functioning, letting you know when you need water or food. Helping you make choices, understand complex information, and know the steps to do a task, and in what order those steps need to be done to complete the task. Finally, the brain helps you learn and remember new information.

Let’s think about the brain and what it does. Controls the body, right? Yes. Here is a common scenario that can look like memory loss when it isn’t. As an example of sequencing for a typical brain (no dementia, Alzheimer’s or memory loss).

Think about the steps to complete the task of brushing your teeth.

Sequencing of Brushing Teeth with no Dementia or Alzheimer’s:

  • Step one reach for the toothbrush
  • Step two reach for the toothpaste
  • Step three remove the cap on the toothpaste
  • Step four put the toothpaste on the toothbrush
  • Step five wet the toothpaste
  • Step six brush teeth.

Now let’s look at that same sequencing and what might happen for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s. This scenario shows a change in steps of the task or not moving on from one of the steps of the task to the next. It shows the sequencing for a brain with dementia or Alzheimer’s and is not due to memory loss. In fact, sequencing and remembering are processed in two different areas of the brain.

Sequencing of Brushing Teeth with Dementia (or Alzheimer’s):

  • Step one reach for the toothbrush
  • Step two reach for the toothpaste
  • Step three put the toothpaste on the toothbrush (went through the motion)
  • Step four remove the cap on the toothpaste (this step was passed over)
  • Step five wet the toothbrush
  • Step six brush teeth (brushing teeth without toothpaste)

It would be easy to say they simply forgot. Really it is an effect of sequencing; the steps of the task were done in a different order. A person with dementia thinks that they have completed the task of brushing their teeth and is unaware they brushed their teeth without toothpaste.

Looking at another example of the same task. This time say the person is in step five wetting the toothbrush and never moves on from that step. That is also in sequencing and specifically not being able to complete a sequence, although it can look like forgetting or memory loss.

Even though some of the characteristics of dementia or Alzheimer’s can look like memory loss, calling dementia or Alzheimer’s memory loss is an overgeneralization of what is truly happening in the brain. That overgeneralizing is misguiding and the myth that Landis Homes is working towards demystifying in our Dementia Friendly Experience. To take it even further, the person with dementia or Alzheimer’s in this scenario is unaware of the missed or mixed-up steps of the sequencing process. In their brain, they have done the task of brushing their teeth correctly. Pointing out the missed order or missing step to that person can make that person feel less capable. It is our reaction as a care partner to that person that can make them frustrated or feel inadequate.

In the next blog, we will take a deeper look from the perspective of the person living with dementia.

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