Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t the same thing
Many people use the words Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably, but it’s important to know that they’re not the same thing. Dementia is a syndrome, which is a group of symptoms that relate to a specific disorder or disease. It’s not a disease in itself. Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases like Alzheimer’s, mini strokes, or traumatic brain injury.
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia. It’s the most common type and accounts for 60 – 80% of all dementia cases. However, not all dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s. Aside from Alzheimer’s, there are 8 major types of dementia. Learning about the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia is important because it helps you make more informed care decisions and find effective ways to manage symptoms.
We explain what dementia is, what Alzheimer’s disease is, and the differences between symptoms for Alzheimer’s vs. dementia.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an overall term for a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, reasoning, and cognitive skills. It’s important to know that dementia isn’t a normal part of aging. It’s caused by physical changes in the brain that are usually triggered by disease, stroke, or injury.
Dementia isn’t just about simple memory lapses like forgetting someone’s name, where you parked, or where you left your glasses. A person with dementia struggles with at least two of the following:
- Communication and speech
- Focus and concentration
- Reasoning and judgment
- Visual perception (can’t see the difference in colors or detect movement, or sees things that aren’t there)
There are many different types of dementia, so the specific symptoms that someone could experience will depend on the parts of their brain that are damaged and the disease that’s causing dementia.
Types of dementia
Alzheimer’s disease is the leading type of dementia and accounts for 60 – 80% of all dementia cases. The second most common is vascular dementia which is typically caused by stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs or mini-stroke). Other conditions can also cause symptoms of dementia. Some are reversible, like urinary tract infections (UTIs), delirium, thyroid problems, or vitamin deficiencies. Others, like Parkinson’s disease, are not reversible.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disease. It’s the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and, as of now, there is no cure. Alzheimer’s causes problems with cognitive functions like memory, judgement, decision-making, and behavior.
Alzheimer’s symptoms are unpredictable, but usually develop slowly and worsen over time. It will get progressively more difficult for the person with Alzheimer’s to carry on a conversation or perform everyday tasks. Other common symptoms are confusion, aggression, and mood changes.
In the early stages, memory loss and other symptoms are usually mild. In later stages, common symptoms include problems with communication, complete dependence on others for care, loss of mobility, incontinence, problems eating, and challenging behaviors like repetitive questions, rummaging, wandering, or asking to go “home.”
Current FDA-approved treatments may reduce or delay symptoms but typically work best in the early stages of the disease.
Alzheimer’s vs. dementia symptoms
Because Alzheimer’s and other dementias cause cognitive impairment, symptoms for the various types of dementia often overlap.
Generally, Alzheimer’s and other dementias cause:
Alzheimer’s symptoms typically include:
- Impaired memory
- A decline in the ability to think and use reason and judgement
- Impaired speaking and communication ability
- Loss of short-term memory
- Impaired judgment
- Behavioral changes
- Difficulty speaking, swallowing, or walking in advanced stages of the disease
Lewy body dementia (LBD) has many symptoms in common with Alzheimer’s. However, in LBD, people are more likely to experience visual hallucinations, difficulties with balance, and disturbed sleep. In dementia caused by Parkinson’s disease, people are more likely to experience tremors, slowed movements, rigid muscles and joints, and speech changes.