Neurodegenerative disorders refer to a wide range of diseases and conditions that are characterized by progressive damage to the function or structure of nerves. While there are numerous known neurodegenerative disorders, the two most common and well-known are Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Based on calculations, estimates suggest that about 6.2 million Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s disease in 2021. About one million Americans are estimated to be living with Parkinson’s disease.
The two diseases are frequently grouped together, and while it may seem that Parkinson’s falls into the category of diseases similar to Alzheimer’s due to similar clinical and neuropathologic features, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are uniquely different. They manifest differently, and they come with different forms of treatment to manage symptoms (though neither have a known cure yet). Learn more about the difference between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s below.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German neurologist who first discovered the cognitive function disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a neurologic disorder that is characterized by damage to the brain cells and actual brain shrinkage, or atrophy. Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia, a generic term for behavioral and cognitive decline that may affect your basic ability to function as an AD patient.
While research still does not know the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease, the basic mechanism involves dysfunction in brain proteins. This disrupts normal function in brain cells for an AD patient, known as neurons. The brain disorder results in damage to the neurons, a loss of connection between neurons, and eventually dead brain cells for an Alzheimer’s patient. This process typically starts in areas of the brain involved with memory, but this can start years prior to any noticeable cognitive symptoms. The neuronal atrophy eventually spreads to other regions of the brain, leading to increased brain shrinkage and severe cognitive issues.
There is currently no known cure for an Alzheimer’s patient, but medication can help to manage symptoms, maximize function, and slow the cognitive impairment disease’s progress, enough to support your independence for some time.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
As mentioned, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s accounts for up to 80 percent of dementia cases. Dementia can manifest in several ways. Learn more about what the physical symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia are below.
Memory loss is the main symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, and it is one of the most notable early signs of the cognitive impairment disorder. Everyone has their own lapses in memory every so often. It is normal to forget things, but with Alzheimer’s, that memory loss can be persistent and get worse over time. The memory issues can be severe enough that you may have trouble at home or at work.
Memory and cognitive decline issues in people with Alzheimer’s may appear as:
- Repeating questions or statements over and over
- Forgetting dates, events, appointments, and conversations and forgetting them again after being reminded
- Getting lost at home or in other familiar places
- Misplacing possessions, often in illogical locations
- Forgetting words for basic objects
- Not finding the right words to take part in conversations or express basic thoughts
- Forgetting names of friends and family
The mild cognitive impairment disease can cause cognitive function problems, especially when it comes to abstract concepts like numbers. This can result in problems with managing finances and paying bills on time. As the disease progresses, you may not be able to recognize numbers at all. These cognitive issues may also make multitasking difficult.
However, you may still retain other skills, like singing, telling stories, drawing, listening to music, and reading books. These are controlled by other regions of the brain that may only be affected in later, more severe forms of the disease.
As the disease progresses, your judgment and decision-making abilities may falter. You may make uncharacteristic choices in everyday interactions. You may have trouble responding to basic problems, like unexpected driving situations. You may choose inappropriate clothes for the weather or occasion.
Routine tasks may become a struggle. This becomes particularly true for tasks and errands that require sequential steps, like preparing and cooking a meal or getting ready for the day. When the disease progresses to its later stages, you may be unable to perform many basic tasks like bathing or dressing yourself.
Mood and Personality
Changes to the brain can eventually lead to mood disorders and changes to your personality. You may experience depression and mood swings. You may become irritable or aggressive to others or begin to have delusions.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease is another progressive neurological disorder. It was named after James Parkinson, an English surgeon who first identified the disease. Similar to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease involves damage to your neurons. Unlike Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease specifically involves the breakdown of neurons responsible for synthesizing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Low dopamine levels impair brain activity, eventually leading to problems with movement and muscle control
Parkinson’s does not have any known cure, but medication can help you control and manage symptoms and slow the progress of the disease. Surgery may help to improve certain symptoms.
Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
Unlike Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease specifically affects movement. Early signs of the disease can be easy to miss or ignore, but the most common manifestation is a tremor. This is characterized by involuntary shaking that usually begins in your hands or fingers, though it can potentially affect any part of your body. Your hand may tremble when you are at rest, or you may unconsciously rub your thumb and index finger together (known as pill-rolling tremor).
Parkinson’s disease can also result in bradykinesia, or slowed movement. This can create the feeling of having your feet stuck to the floor. Your gait may change to shorter steps when you walk, and you may have difficulty with general movements, like trying to get out of a chair.
You may also experience muscle rigidity or stiffness. This can further limit your range of motion and make movement painful.
This can also extend to any automatic or unconscious movements. You may have trouble blinking, emoting, or swinging your arms when you walk. In fact, many people experience a “masked face” where they constantly have a mad, sad, or serious look even when they are in perfectly good moods.
Along with its effects on movement, Parkinson’s disease can affect other things involving your motor function, including:
- Changes to your handwriting
- Slurring or speaking softer, lower, or without your usual inflections
- Poor posture
- Poor sleep (caused by thrashing or acting out dreams when you are asleep)
Parkinson’s disease can potentially result in dementia (fittingly known as Parkinson’s disease dementia). This can contribute to problems with memory, concentration, and decision making, all of which also overlap with symptoms of Alzheimer’s. However, Parkinson’s dementia is more common in the later stages of the disease, at which point you have hopefully already received a diagnosis for your motor function symptoms.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are two of the most well-known neurodegenerative disorders in the world. While they share some overlap, the two are vastly different in their symptoms and management. If you experience any neurological symptoms or sudden problems with cognition, consult your doctor to receive an exact diagnosis or contact Immunity Therapy Center for help.
- Nature. Neurodegenerative diseases. https://www.nature.com/subjects/neurodegenerative-diseases
- Alzheimer’s Association. 2021 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. https://www.alz.org/media/documents/alzheimers-facts-and-figures.pdf
- Parkinson’s Foundation. 2021 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. https://www.parkinson.org/Understanding-Parkinsons/Statistics
- Alzheimer’s AssociationWhat is Alzheimer’s Disease? https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers
- What Is Parkinson’s? Parkinson’s Foundation. https://www.parkinson.org/understanding-parkinsons/what-is-parkinsons
- UCSF. Parkinson’s Disease Dementia. https://memory.ucsf.edu/dementia/parkinsons/parkinson-disease-dementia
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