Many people are confused about the differences between Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as both are related to memory disorders and age-related memory loss.
Many people believe the two mean the same thing – they’re often assumed to be synonymous. However, the two words mean two different things.
Dementia is a general term for the progressive decline or cognitive impairment in one’s memory and mental ability, severe enough to interfere with their daily lives. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease, whereas dementia is not, and is more of an umbrella term for any memory problems and cognitive impairment.
In this article, we will cover the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, as knowing the difference between these two things is vitally important for individuals who have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and their families, loved ones, and caregivers.
What is Dementia?
As previously mentioned, dementia is the name for a group of brain disorders that affect the cognitive function and ability to think and remember things, control one’s emotions, and make sound decisions.
If you forgot that new coworker’s name or where you parked at the mall, you don’t have dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is just one of the many disorders that fall under the “dementia” category. There are several other types of cognitive problems that fall under the heading of dementia. These include progressive dementia, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, Huntington’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, multi-infarct dementia, Pick’s disease, and Lewy body dementia, among others.
A person with dementia would have a hard time with at least two of the following:
- Clear Communication and Speech
- Memory Impairment
- Concentration and Focus
- Judgment or Reasoning Skills
- Visual Perception (may see things which are not there, a difficult time seeing various colors, etc.)
Many patients with dementia experience a progressive decline in their ability to perform the above list of items. Generally speaking, dementia-like symptoms worsen over time as forgetfulness increases, and their alertness to their environment begins to fade.
Here are some Examples of Signs and Symptoms of Dementia:
- Short-term or long-term memory loss
- Issues with keeping track of a wallet or purse
- Memory lapses when it comes to paying bills
- Preparing and planning meals at random
- Difficulty with activities of daily living, like hygiene or bathing
- A decline in problem-solving skills
- Forgetting doctor’s appointments or other obligations
- Wandering out of the neighborhood (Wandering is likely a sign of Alzheimer’s diseases
What Causes Dementia?
Our brain has several distinct regions, each of which is responsible for a variety of different functions. For example, some areas of the brain are in charge of our memory, others our physical movement, etc.
Dementia is caused when damage occurs to the brain cells in one’s brain. Once damaged, different regions of the brain cannot communicate with each other correctly. When this happens, it impacts a person’s ability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), as well as their ability to communicate, think, and react with normal behavior.
Since dementia comes in many different forms, each affects a particular area of the brain and damages different brain cells. For example, with Alzheimer’s disease, there are high levels of specific proteins, both inside and outside the brain cells, making it difficult for those brain cells to remain healthy and communicate effectively. The center of how we learn and maintain a sharp memory is almost entirely done within the Hippocampus region of the brain. In Alzheimer’s patients, the Hippocampus, and the brain cells within this region, are the first to be damaged. Hence, memory loss and forgetfulness is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Although the majority of changes that occur within the brain causing stages of memory loss and dementia are permanent and likely to worsen over time, other conditions may cause cognitive functioning and memory problems that will improve once the condition itself improves.
These Conditions Include:
- Depression or Anxiety
- Side Effects of Medication
- Drinking Alcohol in Excess
- Problems with the Thyroid
- Vitamin Deficiencies (a person’s body is deficient in a particular type of vitamin – your doctor can test for this)
Diagnosis of Dementia
Unfortunately, we have not developed the technology to be able to perform one single test to determine if someone has stages of dementia or not.
Instead, doctors can diagnose Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia based on the patient’s medical history, their family medical history, a physical examination, the changes in their characteristic day-to-day function, laboratory tests, and the behavior exhibited by the patient. By performing these assessments, a doctor can diagnose dementia in a patient with quite a high level of certainty.
While diagnosing people with dementia is one thing, determining what type of dementia they are suffering from can be a much more tasking effort. This is because various types of dementia can cause brain changes that overlap – with many types of dementia exhibiting similar symptoms. In cases where the type of dementia cannot be determined clearly, a doctor may diagnose their patient with “dementia,” without specifying what type. If this happens to you or a loved one, it’s a good idea to visit a specialist, such as a Neurologist or Gero-Psychologist who can help pinpoint what form of dementia you’re dealing with specifically.
Dementia Risk & How to Prevent Dementia
As with any disease, some risk factors are simply out of your control. These dementia risk factors include your age, medical history, and genetics.
According to the research reported at the 2019 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, there are still some things that you can control. Adopting a healthier and more active lifestyle can help with preventing memory loss and dementia. This includes consuming a healthy and well-rounded diet, avoiding any type of smoking, and making both physical and cognitive stimulation exercise a part of your daily memory care routine. The study also suggested that a healthy and active lifestyle can prevent your risk of cognitive decline and improve your overall health and well-being. It’s worth mentioning — researchers suggest that lowering stress levels may also help prevent short-term memory loss problems.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia care solely depend on the root cause. It is much more challenging to treat dementia in patients who don’t know what type of dementia they’re dealing with. That is why you should see a neurological specialist if your primary care doctor is unable to confidently diagnose you with a specific type of dementia.
Progressive dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure and not many treatment options that will stop or slow the progression down. At this time, they may benefit from living in memory care facilities, senior living communities, hospice care, or Alzheimer’s care facilities, where they can be supervised and receive a specialized continuum of care from professional staff, caregivers, or licensed nurses 24/7.
Your doctor may prescribe certain medications known to treat Alzheimer’s disease or dementia symptoms, even if you’ve been diagnosed with a different type of dementia. There are also some non-drug therapies for dementia that may alleviate some of the negative symptoms you’re experiencing. You can ask your doctor for all your dementia treatment options.
With this in mind, remember that there are effective new treatments for dementia going through research and clinical studies as we speak. Hopefully, soon these treatments will be available to the public.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
In its most basic description, Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia in which an individual develops problems with their memory, thinking, logic, and behavior. Generally, Alzheimer’s symptoms will slowly increase in severity over time, eventually becoming disabling to the point of significant interference with one’s daily tasks.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most commonly diagnosed type of dementia, with the disease accounting for 60% – 80% of every single dementia case. Contrary to popular belief, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of the human aging process. Although the most significant known risk factor for Alzheimer’s is increasing age, and with the majority of Alzheimer’s patients over the age of 65, it is not just a disease of “old age.” Approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease (also referred to as “early-onset Alzheimer’s).
As a progressive disease, Alzheimer’s symptoms of dementia worsen over time. In the early stages, memory loss may be minor. However, late-stage Alzheimer’s symptoms include the inability to carry on a conversation and failure to respond naturally to one’s environment or living spaces. At this point, it may be best to enroll your loved one in a senior living center, memory care residence, or long-term care facility. They can receive individualized care as a resident there, and you can have access to support and nursing assistance in giving the dementia residents a higher quality of life.
Fact: Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
According to statistics, on average, a person with Alzheimer’s will live four to eight years post-diagnosis but can live up to 20 years after diagnosis, depending on several factors. As of now, Alzheimer’s has no cure, but there are treatments available to help ease the negative symptoms of Alzheimer’s. As with dementia, there are ongoing research and clinical trials in regards to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease; there is always hope.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease:
- The most common sign of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering basic things, especially newly learned information
- As the disease progresses, one might experience disorientation and problems with social interaction
- Mood and behavior changes
- Higher levels of confusion regarding events (either past or present)
- Confusion as to what time or place it is when performing daily activities
- New-found suspicions about family members or friends, caregivers or doctors
- Difficulty swallowing
- Problems with speaking or activities around the house
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
Long before someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, their brain experiences microscopic changes over several years.
The human brain has over 100 billion nerve cells, called “neurons”. Neurons connect with each other to form communication networks.
Groups of neurons attach to one another and have specific jobs. Some are a part of the thought process, and some are for learning and others for remembering things. Of course, we also have neuron groups responsible for our sense of smell, eye-sight, and hearing.
These groups of neurons operate like you could imagine tiny factories to work. They receive supplies, generate energy, construct equipment, and get rid of waste. They store information and communicate with each other, neuron cluster to neuron cluster. It requires coordination, large amounts of fuel, and oxygen to keep this tiny factory running at full speed.
According to scientists, Alzheimer’s disease interrupts the smooth-running tiny factory inside the brain and prevents it from operating efficiently. As of now, scientists are unable to identify where the first interruption takes place. But, just like a real factory, breakdowns and backups begin to slow everything down. Other areas of the brain start to experience problems due to the bottle-neck that is Alzheimer’s disease. The damage spreads, and the neurons in our minds are unable to do their jobs correctly. They eventually die, causing irreversible damage and changes in the brain.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease
Unfortunately, we have not developed the technology to be able to perform one single test to determine if someone has dementia or not.
Instead, doctors can diagnose Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia based on the patient’s medical history, their family medical history, a physical examination, the changes in their characteristic day-to-day function and activities, laboratory tests, and the behavior exhibited by the patient. By performing these assessments, a doctor can diagnose dementia in a patient with quite a high level of certainty.
Diagnosing a patient with dementia is one thing, but determining the type of dementia they are suffering from can be a much more difficult task. This is because various types of dementia can cause brain changes that overlap – with many types of dementia exhibiting similar symptoms. In cases where the form of dementia cannot be determined clearly, a doctor may diagnose their patient with “dementia,” without specifying what type. If this happens to you or a loved one, it’s a good idea to visit a specialist, such as a Neurologist or Gero-Psychologist, who can help pinpoint what type of dementia you’re dealing with.
Alzheimer’s Risk & How to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
High cholesterol levels in the blood, high blood pressure, lack of blood flow to the brain, diabetes, and obesity can all play a factor in a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease. These health issues may also increase one’s risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as a heart attack or stroke. If you smoke, you may also be increasing your chances of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
It’s been shown that those who consume an excessive amount of alcohol may be putting their health at risk in many ways, including potentially increasing their chance of receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In addition to these risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, research shows that people with a low level of education and those who do not participate in regular cognitive exercises to sharpen the brain are at an increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. With a diagnosis, they are also more likely to require in-home care or care assisted living later on in life.
Can Alzheimer’s be prevented?
Although Alzheimer’s may not have an exact answer as to how one could prevent being diagnosed with the disease, research has proven that there are several ways to lessen your chances of getting Alzheimer’s. A population-based study suggests that factors associated with overall good health significantly reduce the risk of any type of dementia or cognitive decline from occurring. Scientists say you should always avoid smoking, eat a healthy diet, keep your vascular risk factors at bay (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes), take care of your mental health, and participate in social activities. By doing so, you’ll decrease the chances of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Plaques and Tangles in Alzheimer’s
There are two abnormal structures called plaques and tangles that are the suspects in damaging, and eventually killing, neurons and nerve cells.
Plaques – Plaques are deposits of protein fragments known as beta-amyloids, which build up within the spaces between neurons and nerve cells.
Tangles – Tangles are composed of another type of protein called tau, that twists its fibers together and accumulates inside cells.
It’s normal for older adults to develop some level of plaques and tangles as they age. That said, people with Alzheimer’s develop far more than the average person, and they are built up in a particular pattern – beginning in the areas most important for memory, then spreading to other regions of the brain.
Unfortunately, scientists don’t know the exact role plaques and tangles play in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. That said, through autopsy reports, we’ve been able to directly link excessive plaques and tangles within the brain of those who had Alzheimer’s disease prior-to passing on. Most experts solidly believe that these plaques and tangles play a significant and critical role in blocking one’s communication among neurons and nerve cells, killing them off and causing dementia symptoms.
How are Dementia and Alzheimer’s Different?
When a person receives a dementia diagnosis, they are diagnosed with a “set” of symptoms.
Think of it this way: When someone is diagnosed with a sore throat, they know that their throat hurts, but don’t know what is causing that particular symptom yet. It could be the common cold, a bug going around, or allergies. Just like someone diagnosed with dementia, they are experiencing dementia symptoms without being told what the root cause is of those symptoms they’re experiencing.
One of the most significant differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that Alzheimer’s disease is not reversible. It is degenerative and currently – incurable. On the other hand, there are some types of dementia that are curable with drugs or fixing vitamin deficiencies.
If needed, see a specialist who can give you a proper and specific diagnosis for the dementia symptoms you’re experiencing. Once the root cause of the dementia symptoms is found, the appropriate treatment can begin. Until a proper diagnosis is made, the best approach when dealing with a person who is suffering from dementia symptoms is to be patient, loving, and offer communication.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are two terms that are often confused for being the same thing. Now that you understand the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, hopefully, you’ll be able to see the early signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and discuss treatment options with your doctor sooner rather than later.