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TPR Lifeline: Alzheimer's Versus Dementia

Wendy Rigby
Texas Public Radio
Ginny Funk is the program and advocacy director of the San Antonio chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

The memory robbing disease Alzheimer’s can be a frightening diagnosis. But how do you know if your parent or loved one is just getting older or is actually battling Alzheimer’s? In today’s TPR Lifeline, Wendy Rigby talks to Ginny Funk, program and advocacy director of the San Antonio chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Here's a transcript of the interview.


Rigby: It’s estimated that more than five million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease. And the incidence is rising in line with our aging population. Although Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging, the risk of developing the illness rises with age. Ginny, can you tell us what’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Funk: Dementia is this broad, broad term. Similar to think of cancer and how many different types of cancer there are. Well, Alzheimer’s disease causes dementia symptoms, causes 60 to 80 percent of all dementia symptoms.

Rigby: Can medications ever cause symptoms that can be confused with dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Funk: Medication interactions. I always think of a family that called our help line. They were on 17 different medications. All of those in the body absolutely, we found out, were causing the dementia symptoms. It was not the brain disease of Alzheimer’s. Vitamin deficiencies can cause dementia symptoms. A urinary tract infection in an older person can make them look just like they have Alzheimer’s. But that’s an infection that can be treated, reversed. That was not Alzheimer’s disease.

Rigby: We always hear about how little there is that can be done for Alzheimer’s patients. Why is it important, then, for there to be early detection?

Funk: Now although there are not true treatments to stop Alzheimer’s disease from progressing, there are medications that are FDA approved to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Rigby: Many of us are helping taking care of aging parents. What would you say is the number one thing we should look for as they age to see if they’re suffering from Alzheimer’s?

Funk: It’s not memory loss as in forgetting a name. It’s memory loss where you’ve lost an entire day. Your brain can no longer learn and remember newly learned information.

Rigby: What about personality changes?

Funk: One of the warning signs is when you have an individual who shows an incredible up and down in their temperament as far as having a catastrophic reaction to something that we think was just fairly simple, maybe a time change in a doctor’s appointment and they just explode. Or they have personality changes such as having so much more anxiety than you’ve ever seen before.

Rigby: There are studies going on, even here in the San Antonio area. And sometimes this can help patients feel more confident about the future.

Funk: If the individual is in the early enough stages to have that conversation, then they can tell us “I want to be involved in clinical trials.” The two reasons we don’t yet have a cure for Alzheimer’s disease and the other irreversible dementias is one, there’s not enough research funding to fund all the research that’s out there. But the second thing is there are not enough human beings enrolled in trials.

Rigby: While this is a very serious and scary illness, when people are first diagnosed, it’s not as if their life is over.

Funk: Although an individual may not be able to do everything they used to be able to do, we need to find out where they are so that we can get them engaged to continue to keep living, absolutely, with this disease.

Rigby: Ginny Funk with the San Antonio chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, thank you so much.

Funk: Thank you.

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.