What is the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Victoria Burke by Victoria Burke | Licensed since 2011
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This article was updated on: 10/06/2018

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What is the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s? 

You might think that Alzheimer’s and dementia are simply different words for the same condition, but they aren’t. Alzheimer’s is a disease which accounts for up to 80 percent of dementia cases. Dementia is a syndrome–a collection of symptoms that are associated with a decline in thinking, reasoning, and/or remembering.

Dementia: a syndrome characterized by progressive confusion

People are more likely to develop dementia as they age. According to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, dementia incidence doubles every five years from ages 65 to 90 years. Dementia occurs when certain brain cells are damaged. This damage can be the result of many conditions, including degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Other causes of dementia according to the Cleveland Clinic include: vascular diseases, infections (such as HIV), depression, and chronic drug use.

Often the early signs of dementia are so mild, they are overlooked. But over time simple episodes of forgetfulness progress to more significant disturbances—forgetfulness and confusion grow. The Family Caregiver Alliance notes that people with dementia have trouble keeping track of time and tend to lose their way in familiar settings or forget familiar people. Family members and friends may notice the individual’s behavior is marked by repetitious questioning, inadequate hygiene, and poor decision-making. Behavior may turn to depression and aggression. In the most advanced stage, people with dementia become unable to care for themselves.

Treatment for dementia depends upon its direct cause. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in some cases caused by thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies, dementia can be reversed.  More commonly, however, treatments are available to manage symptoms of dementia or to slow down its progress rather than reverse it. Treatments are available to make symptoms of dementia due to Parkinson’s manageable, for example, but there isn’t currently a way to stop or even slow down its progress.

Alzheimer’s disease: the #1 disease associated with dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it affects 1 in 10 individuals age 65 and older. The Mayo Clinic notes that common symptoms of Alzheimer’s include difficulty remembering recent conversations and events. Apathy and depression are also often early symptoms. Later symptoms may include impaired communication, poor judgment, disorientation, confusion, and difficulty planning and performing simple daily living tasks—such as dressing and bathing.

Alzheimer’s disease damages and kills brain cells. Abnormal protein deposits form plaques and tangles in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Connections between cells are lost, and the cells begin to die according to the Mayo Clinic. As the Alzheimer’s Association notes, Alzheimer’s disease gets worse with time and affects memory, language, and thought. Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness.  No cure is currently available although medical research world-wide is actively seeking to understand the disease and find effective cures.

According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s can only be definitively diagnosed after death by performing an exam of brain tissue in an autopsy.

Dementia vs Alzheimer’s
Is a collection of symptoms Is a disease
Can be diagnosed while the person is living Cannot be definitively diagnosed without an autopsy
In some cases can be reversed Is always fatal

Clinical and social resources for the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s

If you think you or a loved one has symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer, you should consult a physician as soon as possible.  Treatment may be available to help manage the symptoms. In the earlier stages, people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease may 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.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease may place an emotional and financial burden on families and caregivers.  If you are the caregiver to a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, it may be helpful to know that resources are available to assist you with the special challenges of dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.  You may want to begin by contacting the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregiver Center, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association.  The Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregiver Center provides a number of resources, online and telephonic counseling, and a bulletin board where caregivers can exchange ideas and tips on care strategies.

For more information on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at http://www.alz.org/facts/

Do you want information on Medicare coverage of dementia and Alzheimer’s?

I’m happy to help. You can request information via email or schedule a phone call at your convenience by clicking one of the links. To see a list of plans in your area that you may qualify for, click the Compare Plans or Find Plans buttons.

This article provides general information, and is not a substitute for medical advice.  Only a licensed medical professional can diagnose and treat medical conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.

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