What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Aging
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are similar but not the same. Dementia is a general term and has many different types, of which Alzheimer’s is one. There is sometimes confusion between the two because people often use the terms interchangeably.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms that broadly affect cognitive functioning, including:

  • memory
  • thinking and focus
  • problem solving
  • language
  • visual perception

Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia that causes a gradual decline in memory and thinking.

What is dementia?

senior man sitting outside thinking
Some dementia symptoms can be mild and difficult to detect.

Dementia is a syndrome, which means that it describes a collection of symptoms with no specific cause. A syndrome is different from a disease, which has specific symptoms and a common cause.

Dementia can affect a wide range of mental functions. As a result, many different diseases and conditions are types of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but there are several other types, including:

  • vascular dementia, which results from strokes or other conditions that block blood flow to the brain
  • Lewy body dementia, which is a result of abnormal protein deposits in the brain
  • frontotemporal disorders, which are types of dementia resulting from damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain

It is possible to have multiple types of dementia. The term for this is mixed dementia.

Causes and risk factors

The cause depends on the type, but the exact causes of many forms of dementia are currently unclear.

One of the main risk factors for dementia is age. In fact, up to 50 percent of people aged 85 and older may have a type of dementia. Around 32 percent of people over the age of 85 currently have Alzheimer’s disease.

Symptoms tend to get worse as age advances, but it is important to remember that dementia is not a normal part of aging.

It is possible to develop dementia at a younger age, but it is more common among older adults.

Warning signs and symptoms

Some people find the symptoms of dementia hard to detect because they may be mild. However, in other cases, they could be severe enough to significantly impact daily life.

Symptoms vary depending on the area of the brain that dementia affects, but the most common signs include:

  • anxiety and distress
  • low mood
  • detachment and disinterest
  • repeating the same questions
  • psychosis
  • sleep disturbances
  • walking around for no apparent reason
  • inappropriate behavior, such as social and sexual disinhibition

It is possible for the symptoms of dementia to emerge many years after onset. This can be a problem when it comes to diagnosing and treating the syndrome.

Significant damage may already be present in a person before they visit a doctor, which can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult.


What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease has a specific set of symptoms that share a common cause.

Researchers believe that a buildup of abnormal proteins forms plaques and tangles in the brain, which causes Alzheimer’s disease. These abnormal proteins surround brain cells and can damage their ability to communicate. This eventually causes injury and death to the cells.

These buildups occur in specific areas of the brain, including the hippocampus. This region plays a crucial role in long-term memory recall.

Warning signs and symptoms

Alzheimer’s disease affects specific mental functions because it affects specific areas of the brain. It causes some symptoms that are common in other forms of dementia, such as:

  • confusion
  • disorientation
  • memory problems
  • mood changes

Other symptoms more specific to Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • difficulty recalling past events
  • difficulty remembering new information
  • personality changes, such as becoming more aggressive or paranoid
  • persistent low mood
  • difficulty swallowing, speaking, or walking

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease treatment

seniors practising dancing
Keeping active may help slow the development of dementia.

There is no cure for dementia, and current treatments cannot reverse the damage. Treatment options vary depending on the type of dementia.

Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, for example, aim to relieve symptoms and could involve:

  • medications for memory loss
  • medications for behavioral changes or depression
  • cognitive training
  • sleep aids

Positive lifestyle changes are an important part of general health, and they may help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Some lifestyle changes may include following the Mediterranean diet and engaging in regular physical activity. However, confirming the benefits of these changes will require additional research.

Treating people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia is very challenging. It is important to help people keep as much of their independence as possible and to provide support when necessary.


Outlook

The outlook for people with dementia depends on how early a specialist diagnoses and treats their condition. It is possible, depending on the type of dementia, to detect symptoms early enough for the individual to live for many more years and maintain as high a quality of life as possible.

Dementia in general and Alzheimer’s disease in particular are progressive disorders with no available cures. Treatment can help slow the degeneration down, but it cannot prevent it.

The rate of cognitive decline varies considerably, but it can have a serious impact on quality of life.

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