The terms Alzheimer’s and dementia are frequently used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.
Both refer to debilitating states of decline in various areas of thinking and behavior. Their causes and, therefore, their prognoses and treatment options, however, can be quite different.
For this reason, it is essential to understand the difference between the two in order to address it properly.
If you or someone close to you has Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, it’s important to understand what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s. This will help you and your loved one to move forward together in a more proactive way.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a decline in cognitive capacities so significant it interferes with daily living. It is not a disease but a generic term referring to a collection of symptoms that many different diseases may cause.
Dementia is frequently erroneously described as senility. This derives from a now debunked theory that severe cognitive decline is a regular part of the aging process.
Dementia is not simply a normal part of the aging process. Rather, it occurs due to brain cell damage impacting a person’s capacity to communicate. In turn, this can impact the person’s feelings, behavior, and thinking.
Symptoms of Dementia
Possible dementia symptoms include:
- A decline in reasoning skills and judgment
- Declining memory, both long-term and short-term
- Lowered attention and focus
- Language difficulties
- Mood or behavior changes
- Changes in other cognitive abilities, including thinking and problem solving
If a person, therefore, has trouble keeping track of basic, belongings like a wallet or purse, paying bills, recalling appointments, traveling beyond familiar areas, or meal planning and preparation, they may have dementia and should be checked by a doctor right away.
There are numerous kinds of dementia and numerous conditions that can cause it. When more than a single kind of dementia is responsible for different changes in the brain, a person is said to have mixed dementia.
Causes of Dementia
The number one contributor to dementia is Alzheimer’s. The second to that is vascular dementia which happens when microscopic blood vessel blockage and microscopic bleeding occur in the brain.
There are, however, other common causes of dementia, including:
- Frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD)
- Parkinson’s disease (PD)
- Hippocampal sclerosis (HS)
While these conditions, and therefore dementia symptoms, are generally permanent and progressive, those caused by certain manageable symptoms are reversible, like those caused by vitamin deficiencies and thyroid trouble.
Dementia can also be the result of mixed pathologies or more than one cause. When this occurs, the patient is said to have mixed dementia or mixed etiological dementia.
Risk Factors for Dementia
One of the most identifiable risk factors for dementia is mild cognitive impairment (MCI) which is a slight decline in a person’s thinking and memory skills. Estimates are that each year, 10 to 15 percent of people with MCI later develop dementia.
Less than one in five people, however, are familiar with MCI symptoms, leading to potentially detrimental delays in diagnosis and treatment.
Treatment for Dementia
Because dementia is a variety of symptoms associated with a variety of diseases, the right treatment for an individual’s case of dementia depends on what’s causing it.
Professional medical evaluation could identify a treatable condition responsible for dementia, in which case, the doctor would treat that condition as a primary treatment course for dementia symptoms.
Even when the doctor does diagnose the patient as having dementia symptoms, early intervention can help the individual receive maximum benefits from the treatments available.
It also gives the person the chance to participate in volunteer studies or clinical trials related to their dementia symptoms or the conditions causing it. Early diagnosis and treatment additionally offer the patient time to plan for future concerns.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic illness that produces progressively more severe symptoms of dementia. It is caused by significant changes in the brain occurring after brain cells become damaged, making Alzheimer’s a degenerative brain disease.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. This number is expected to rise to nearly 13 million by 2050.
Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80 percent of cases of dementia.
Like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging, although most people with the disease are 65 or older. Increasing age is the disease’s most common risk factor.
Still, around 200,000 Americans younger than 65 have a version of the illness known as younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
The first sign of Alzheimer’s is forgetting new information since the disease usually starts by damaging the region of the brain related to learning and memory.
As the disease progresses, symptoms may include several different types of dementia including Lewy body dementia, Frontotemporal dementia, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, and mixed dementia as well as:
- Chronic traumatic encephalopathy
- Limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy
- Huntington’s disease
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
The most obvious and apparent Alzheimer’s symptoms to most observers are variations of confusion, disorientation, and behavioral changes. These show up in several ways, including:
- Disruptive memory loss
- Trouble planning or problem-solving
- Challenges finishing familiar tasks and participating in familiar activities
- Confusion regarding place or time
- Problems comprehending spatial relationships and visual imagery
- New difficulties writing or speaking words
- Misplacing objects and belongings and losing the capacity to retrace one’s steps
- Poor, impaired, or reduced judgment
- Withdrawal from social activities or work
- Mood or personality changes
In the advanced stages of the disease, a person develops trouble walking, speaking, and swallowing.
Causes of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s occurs when the brain accumulates abnormal proteins, namely phosphorylated tau and beta-amyloid. In addition, nerve cells in the brain begin to degenerate.
How Doctors Diagnose Alzheimer’s
Doctors have several tools at their disposal for diagnosing a person’s dementia as Alzheimer’s related. These include:
- The patient’s medical history
- Mental status tests
- Physical exams
- Neurological exams
- Brain imaging
- Diagnostic tests
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s
There are several risk factors for Alzheimer’s, although the exact causes of the disease are not yet known. These risk factors include:
- Older age
- Heredity / genetics
- Family history
- Head injury
- Heart issues
Treatment for Alzheimer’s
If you notice symptoms, you may feel anxious about bringing them up with other people. This is because discussing the symptoms may make the possibility of what could be occurring feel more real. If you notice these symptoms in someone else, you could fear upsetting them if you share your observations with them.
Despite these uncomfortable situations, it’s imperative to broach these concerns with a doctor as soon as possible.
There are currently four approved medications prescribed for people with Alzheimer’s. These medications all address the symptoms exclusively; currently, there is no known medication to eliminate or cure the disease.
- Aducanumab (Aduhelm)
- Donepezil (Aricept)
- Galantamine (Reminyl ER)
- Rivastigmine (Exelon)
- Memantine (Ebixa)
What Is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Dementia is not a chronic illness, while Alzheimer’s is. Nevertheless, they have many of the same symptoms, and the two may be either correlative or causative.
Alzheimer’s disease is both a type and cause of dementia. By the same token, many types of dementia are considered causes of Alzheimer’s.
In this way, as suggested throughout this article, the two are often intertwined.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s vs. Dementia
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s are mostly the same as certain types of dementia, though some differences may occur.
More specifically, certain types of dementia focus on particular symptoms, typically based on the area(s) of the brain being affected. For instance, frontotemporal dementia affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which control behavior and personality.
By contrast, people with Alzheimer’s generally experience a broad spectrum of symptoms. This is why you can often see behavior and personality changes sooner in a person with frontotemporal dementia than in a person with Alzheimer’s.
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s vs. Dementia
Similarly to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, the risk factors for each also overlap considerably. But, certain types of dementia affected by particular parts of the brain may have additional risk factors unique to that region.
For instance, stroke is a risk factor for vascular dementia; heredity, meanwhile, is a risk factor for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Among cases of Alzheimer’s caused by MCI, within five years approximately one-third develop dementia.
Differences Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia and Normal Age-related Issues
As stated early, neither Alzheimer’s nor dementia are natural consequences of the process of aging. The differences between them are significant and distinct, though they can be difficult to distinguish.
Since the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia are both listed in detail above, here, we’ll list their similar but distinct correlations associated with aging.
- Making poor decisions occasionally
- Missing one monthly payment on a bill
- Forgetting the day or date momentarily, but later recalling it
- Periodically forgetting the right word to use in a particular situation
- Losing items now and again
Notice the commonality among all of these distinctions is that they each occur once in a while. If they start happening more frequently or become a pattern, there may be more than aging at play, and a doctor’s evaluation for Alzheimer’s or dementia should take place.
The prognosis for Alzheimer’s vs. Dementia
Alzheimer’s is progressive and incurable; ultimately it is fatal. The Alzheimer’s Association reports people 65 and over live 4 to 8 years on average following an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, though some can live up to 20 years.
As such, treatment for Alzheimer’s generally focuses on managing symptoms and slowing the pace of decline.
As for dementia, given that it’s not a medical condition but rather a collection of symptoms, it is not fatal. How treatable a case of dementia may or may not depend a lot on its cause.
A person can live a long, full life with dementia if under proper care. By contrast, however, one in three seniors dies due to Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related condition.
This is greater than the number of people prostate cancer and breast cancer kill combined. Due to COVID-19, 2020 saw the number of deaths from Alzheimer’s or dementia jump by 17 percent.
Dementia is a collection of symptoms, whereas Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that causes those symptoms. You can have dementia without having Alzheimer’s; but, if you have Alzheimer’s, you can expect to have dementia.
Whether or not a full recovery is possible, help is available. You don’t have to go through Alzheimer’s or dementia alone.
Now that you know what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, if you or anyone you know is experiencing any symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, contact your doctor immediately for an evaluation.
Similarly, if you possess any of the risk factors for either one, contact your doctor to discuss how you can reduce your risk of developing it or slow its progress if it’s incurable.