What Is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?
The words Alzheimer’s and dementia are often used in the same sentence and even interchangeably, as if they’re the same disease.
But this isn’t true.
In fact, one of these isn’t a disease at all.
What is dementia?
Dementia is not a disease in and of itself but rather a word that describes a group of symptoms related to neurodegeneration, which is a deterioration of cells in the brain. Symptoms of dementia include memory loss; difficulty with reasoning or judgment; changes in thinking skills, language and behavior; and a decrease in the ability to focus.
Several conditions can cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, which would be considered a type of dementia.
Other types of dementia include:
1. Huntington’s disease
This type of dementia is hereditary and usually shows up earlier in life, between the ages of 30 and 50.
Along with impairing memory and cognitive function, the first symptom of Huntington’s disease is often uncontrollable movement in the upper body.
2. Lewy body dementia
Lewy bodies are abnormal deposits of protein in the brain that cause hallucinations, imbalance in the body and attention issues.
3. Vascular dementia
This type of dementia represents 10% of all dementia cases.
It is caused by restricted blood flow in the brain due to blockage in the blood vessels and can lead to stroke or brain bleeds.
4. Parkinson’s disease dementia
This type of dementia occurs in those with Parkinson’s disease who also experience a decline in thinking and reasoning skills.
5. Mixed dementia
When the changes in the brain are caused by multiple types of dementia, this is known as mixed dementia.
The most common form of mixed dementia is caused by conditions related to Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Dementia is more than the natural decline that comes with aging. Dementia signifies damage that has been done to the brain cells to the extent that it is interfering with a person’s cognitive function and abilities.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Named after physician Alois Alzheimer, who was the first to link memory loss symptoms with changes in the brain, Alzheimer’s disease is the leading disease that causes dementia, causing 60-80% of cases.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that affects cognitive functions such as memory, learning new information, thinking, reasoning, and logic. Symptoms increase and worsen over time.
An estimated six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s today, most of whom are over the age of 65. About 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
Is it Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed through a series of tests conducted by your doctor, whether that’s your primary care physician, a neurologist, or a geriatrician. These tests include mental status testing and neuropsychological testing.
Mental status testing tests your thinking and memory skills. Your doctor can score how well you do on these tests to determine your level of cognitive impairment.
Neuropsychological testing is often conducted by a neuropsychologist. This series of tests will also test your memory and thinking skills but will additionally test if you’re able to perform daily functions normally and if another mental condition, such as depression, could be causing your memory loss.
Your doctor will also conduct tests to rule out any other factors that could be resulting in Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, including:
Your doctor may also interview family members or people close to you to discuss any changes in your behavior they’ve noticed.
The bottom line is extensive testing is available that can give you a proper diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. You can even get tested before you start showing symptoms with the use of MRIs, genetic testing and testing of the liquid around your brain and spinal cord. Your doctor can determine if you are a good candidate for early testing.
Understanding the world of neurodegeneration can feel overwhelming, but knowing the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can help you determine what symptoms you or a loved one are experiencing and how to approach your doctor.
With extensive and ongoing research, specialists have been able to identify the numerous forms of dementia, their causes and possible treatments that won’t necessarily cure dementia but can help curb symptoms and improve the quality of life for patients and the loved ones who care for them.