Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same. Dementia is a general term used to describe symptoms that impact memory, performance of daily activities, and communication abilities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease gets worse with time and affects memory, language, and thought.
While younger people can develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, your risk increases as you age. Despite dementia or Alzheimer’s disease being most common in adults over 65, neither is considered a regular part of aging.
Symptoms of the two conditions can overlap but distinguishing them is important for management and treatment. Keep reading to learn more about the differences.
Dementia is a syndrome, not a disease. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that don’t have a definitive diagnosis. Dementia affects mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning. It can occur due to a variety of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.
People can have more than one type of dementia. This is known as mixed dementia. People with mixed dementia have symptoms of two or more types of dementia. A diagnosis of mixed dementia can only be confirmed in an autopsy.
As dementia progresses, it can have a huge impact on the ability to function independently. It’s a major cause of disability for older adults and places an emotional and financial burden on families and caregivers. Dementia is also the
Symptoms of dementia
|Early symptoms||Progressive symptoms||Advanced symptoms|
|• occasional forgetfulness|
• losing track of time
• losing your way in familiar settings
|• frequent forgetfulness |
• more confusion
• repetitive questioning
• poor hygiene
• poor decision making
|• unable to care for yourself|
• trouble with time
• difficulty remembering familiar people and places
• change in behavior
It’s easy to overlook the early symptoms of dementia, which can be mild. Dementia often begins with simple episodes of forgetfulness. People with dementia have trouble keeping track of time and tend to lose their way in familiar settings.
As dementia progresses, forgetfulness and confusion grow. It becomes harder to recall names and faces. Personal care becomes a problem. Obvious signs of dementia include repetitious questioning, inadequate hygiene, and trouble with decision-making.
In the most advanced stage, people with dementia become unable to care for themselves. They will have more trouble with keeping track of time and remembering people and places they are familiar with. Their behavior can continue to change and can turn into depression and aggression.
Causes of dementia
You’re more likely to develop dementia as you age. It occurs when certain brain cells are damaged. Many conditions can cause dementia, including degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. Each cause of dementia causes damage to a different set of brain cells.
Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for about 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia.
Other causes of dementia include:
- infections, such as HIV
- vascular diseases
- chronic drug use
According to the
Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent cause of dementia, but there are many other potential causes.
Vascular dementia is caused by a blockage of blood flow to your brain and is often related to strokes or the buildup of plaque in your arteries. Symptoms can vary widely and may onset slowly or suddenly.
Dementia with Lewy bodies
Dementia with Lewy bodies is a progressive disease caused by deposits of protein in your nerves that disrupt electrical signals. It may cause symptoms such as changes in thinking, confusion, and changes in movement patterns.
Parkinson’s disease dementia
Parkinson’s disease dementia is a decline in cognitive ability that often develops in many people with Parkinson’s a year or more after diagnosis. It’s estimated that about 50 to 80 percent of people with Parkinson’s eventually experience dementia, with an average onset of about 10 years.
Frontotemporal dementia is a group of conditions characterized by loss of brain function in the part of your brain near your forehead or behind your ears. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, behavioral changes are often the first symptoms of frontotemporal dementia.
Posterior cortical atrophy
Posterior cortical atrophy is a progressive deterioration of the outer layer of your brain called the cortex in the posterior part of your brain. Symptoms can vary, but often include problems with visual tasks such as reading or perceiving moving objects.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare infectious disease that affects about
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder caused by a lack of vitamin B1. The most common cause is chronic alcohol misuse. Symptoms may include double vision, confusion, drooping upper eyelids, and loss of muscle coordination.
Mixed dementia is when a person has more than one type of dementia. The most common combination is vascular dementia with Alzheimer’s disease. This combination affects as many as
Normal pressure hydrocephalus
Normal pressure hydrocephalus is a condition caused by a buildup of fluid in the ventricles of your brain. It can cause problems with cognition, movement, and bladder control. In most cases, the cause isn’t known. But head injuries, infections, bleeding in your brain, and surgery can contribute to its development.
Huntington’s disease is a rare condition that causes nerve cells in your brain to break down. It’s caused by a gene abnormality. Early symptoms can include mood changes, psychosis, and poor coordination.
Dementia is the term applied to a group of symptoms that negatively impact memory, but Alzheimer’s is a specific progressive disease of the brain that slowly causes impairment in memory and cognitive function. The exact cause is unknown, and no cure is available.
Although younger people can and do get Alzheimer’s, the symptoms generally begin after age 65.
The effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain
In people with Alzheimer’s disease, brain cells die and connections between brain cells may break down. One of the hallmark symptoms is abnormal protein deposits in the brain called plaques and tangles.
Plaques are dense clusters of protein that can block communication between neurons. Tangles are proteins that twist together that lead to the death of healthy brain cells.
In advanced Alzheimer’s, the brain shows significant shrinkage. Changes in the brain may occur a
It’s impossible to diagnose Alzheimer’s with complete accuracy while a person is alive. The diagnosis can only be confirmed when the brain is examined under a microscope during an autopsy. However, specialists can make the correct diagnosis up to 90 percent of the time.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia can overlap, but there can be some differences.
Both conditions can cause:
- a decline in the ability to think
- memory impairment
- communication impairment
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s include:
- difficulty remembering recent events or conversations
- impaired judgment
- behavioral changes
- difficulty speaking, swallowing, or walking in advanced stages of the disease
Some types of dementia will share some of these symptoms, but they include or exclude other symptoms that can help make a differential diagnosis.
Lewy body dementia (LBD), for example, has many of the same later symptoms as Alzheimer’s. However, people with LBD but are more likely to experience initial symptoms such as visual hallucinations, difficulties with balance, and sleep disturbances.
People with dementia due to Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease are more likely to experience involuntary movement in the early stages of the disease.
Treatment for dementia will depend on the exact cause and type of dementia, but many treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s will overlap.
No cure for Alzheimer’s is available, but options to help manage symptoms of the disease include:
- medications for behavioral changes, such as antipsychotics
- medications for memory loss, which include cholinesterase inhibitors donepezil (Aricept) and rivastigmine (Exelon), and memantine (Namenda)
- alternative remedies that aim to boost brain function or overall health, such as coconut oil or fish oil
- medications for sleep changes
- medications for depression
In some cases, treating the condition that causes dementia may help. Conditions most likely to respond to treatment include dementia caused by:
- metabolic disorders
In most cases, dementia isn’t reversible. However, many forms are treatable. The right medication can help manage dementia. Treatments for dementia will depend on the cause. For example, doctors often treat dementia caused by Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and LBD with cholinesterase inhibitors.
Treatment for vascular dementia will focus on preventing further damage to the brain’s blood vessels and preventing stroke.
People with dementia can also benefit from supportive services from home health aides and other caregivers. An assisted living facility or nursing home may be necessary as the disease progresses.
The outlook for people with dementia depends entirely on the direct cause. Treatments can make symptoms of dementia due to Parkinson’s manageable, but there isn’t currently a way to stop or even slow down related dementia.
Vascular dementia can be slowed down in some cases, but it still shortens a person’s lifespan. Some types of dementia are reversible, but most types are irreversible and will instead cause more impairment over time.
Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness, and no cure is currently available. The length of time each of the three stages lasts varies. People over 65 live an average of 4 to 8 years after receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Some people live as long as 20 years.
It’s a good idea to talk with a doctor if you’re concerned that you have the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Starting treatment promptly can help you better understand and manage your symptoms.