Dementia vs. Alzheimer's Disease: What Are the Differences?

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Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are two medical conditions that share many similarities. This often causes people to mix up the conditions. 

The easiest way to distinguish them is to think of dementia as an umbrella term used to define cognitive decline, which causes memory loss and thinking difficulties. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. However, its symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment can be a little different than other forms of dementia. 

This article discusses the differences between Alzheimer's disease and dementia and why distinguishing between both conditions is essential. It also covers how to recognize the symptoms/cause of each disorder and what treatment looks like for each.

Symptoms 

Alzheimer's is a form of dementia; as a result, it features many symptoms of dementia. However, there are several forms of dementia, each with its defining characteristics and symptoms.

Knowing the general symptoms of dementia and the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can help you distinguish Alzheimer's disease from other forms of dementia.

Dementia
  • Frequent forgetfulness

  • Difficulty performing daily tasks

  • Behavioral changes

Alzheimer's
  • Short-term memory loss

  • Severe mood swings

  • Behavioral changes

Symptoms of Dementia 

Rather than viewing dementia as a disorder on its own, it will be helpful to look at it as a group of symptoms that cause cognitive decline.

Symptoms of dementia often cause a person to become forgetful. It's important to note that dementia is distinct from forgetfulness that might occur in older people.

The most common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Difficulty remembering things
  • Difficulty performing everyday activities, for instance, getting dressed 
  • Behavioral changes, for example, suddenly becoming withdrawn 
  • Difficulty focusing and paying attention 
  • Neglecting self-care 
  • Difficulty communicating 

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease 

Many of the symptoms of dementia overlap with symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. However, symptoms of dementia don't develop in people with Alzheimer's disease until its later stages.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are typically defined by what stage of the condition you are in. One of the earliest symptoms of the disorder is short-term memory loss.

The most common symptoms that follow include: 

  • Difficulty completing everyday tasks 
  • Severe mood swings
  • Behavioral changes 
  • Difficulty organizing things
  • Aggression 
  • Difficulty reading and writing 
  • Difficulty carrying out everyday tasks 
  • Withdrawing from social life 
  • Getting lost in familiar places 
  • Placing things in odd places 
  • Hallucinations and delusions 

Causes 

Alzheimer's disease is one of the leading causes of dementia. However, it's only one of the possible causes. 

Causes of Dementia 

Certain conditions or factors could be responsible for the development of dementia. Some of the most common conditions that have been linked to the development of dementia include:

Dementia is caused by damage to your brain cells either by a disease or a brain injury. 

Causes of Alzheimer's Disease

While Alzheimer's disease has been proven to cause dementia, scientists are still struggling to identify a particular cause of the disease. However, several factors have been linked to the development of the condition. The most common include: 

  • Age: Alzheimer's disease is most likely to occur in older people. In most cases, symptoms of the condition will begin to show in your 60s. 
  • Genetics: Some research shows that having a family history of the condition can increase your risk of developing the disease. 
  • Environmental and lifestyle factors: Research shows that maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and social interactions can help reduce the risk of developing the condition, especially as you age. 

Diagnosis 

There are several types of dementia. Correctly diagnosing if a person has Alzheimer's disease instead of any other form of dementia is essential for the effective treatment of the condition. 

Diagnosis of Dementia 

Dementia diagnosis primarily focuses on what may be causing a person's dementia symptoms. This means that your doctor will try to determine whether it's Alzheimer's or any other conditions responsible for your dementia symptoms.

The diagnostic process typically involves a series of physical and medical tests. Your doctor will also take a detailed look into your medical and family history.

In some instances, the doctor might discover that more than one condition is responsible for your dementia symptoms.

Diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease 

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease can typically be reached when diagnosing what's causing a person's dementia symptoms. Doctors can come to a conclusive diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease by conducting a blood test to check your beta-amyloid levels.

Beta-amyloid is a protein found to abnormally build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease which means its symptoms worsen over time.

Early diagnosis is key to treating the disease efficiently and extending a person's life expectancy with this condition. 

Treatment 

Dementia and Alzheimer's disease can be treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most effective form of psychotherapy used to treat both conditions. With medication, the symptoms being exhibited determine what type of medication is used to treat either disease. 

Treatment of Dementia

Certain medications that have been proven to improve cognitive function are approved by the FDA to treat dementia. They include cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine.

In severe cases, a combination of both medications might be prescribed. Where other severe behavioral or sleep symptoms are exhibited, medication for that might also be prescribed with caution. 

Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease 

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive and terminal disease that currently has no known cure. The good news is that there are treatment options that reduce the severity of its symptoms and improve the functioning of a person with this condition.

The following drugs have been approved by the FDA specifically for the treatment of different symptoms of Alzheimer's disease:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors: These are used to improve symptoms of cognitive decline and dementia in people with Alzheimer's. These include drugs such as Exelon (rivastigmine), Aricept (donepezil), and Razadyne (galantamine)
  • Aduhelm (anti-amyloid antibody aducanumab): This works by eliminating amyloid proteins, which have been found to be built up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and potentially cause the condition. 
  • Namenda (memantine): This is typically used to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease symptoms. It's thought to work by regulating a chemical messenger called glutamate, which helps rescue its harmful effects on the brain. 

Prevention 

Alzheimer's disease and dementia are conditions that develop as we age. As a result, researchers are constantly looking at how to prevent both conditions at earlier ages.

Research shows so far that nothing can be done to avoid developing Alzheimer's disease. However, dementia brought on by factors such as drug abuse can be prevented.

A 2017 study found that exercising regularly, monitoring your blood pressure, and engaging in cognitive training could prevent cognitive decline, which could cause dementia or Alzheimer's disease. 

Summary 

Alzheimer's disease and dementia are medical terms that are often used interchangeably. However, while dementia is used to describe a set of symptoms that causes cognitive decline, Alzheimer's disease is a condition that causes dementia. In fact, it's the leading cause of dementia in the world today.

Distinguishing between both phenomena ensures that you get the most efficient treatment for your condition. 

A Word From Verywell

Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are similar conditions that are often used interchangeably. Although they share several similarities, it's important to distinguish their differences. Alzheimer's disease is a neurological condition and dementia is one of its several symptoms. Alzheimer's disease can also be considered to be a type of dementia. Dementia causes cognitive decline, leading to memory loss, thinking difficulties, and difficulties in carrying out daily tasks. Unfortunately, there's no cure for both conditions; however, they can be treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can dementia or Alzheimer's disease be cured?

    There is currently no known cure for the disease. However, several treatment options can extend a person's life expectancy with the condition. On the other hand, dementia can be reversible in certain instances (where it's the side effect of drug abuse, a removable tumor, or depression). Treating these conditions could reverse the symptoms of dementia.

  • Can dementia/Alzheimer’s disease be passed down to my children/grandchildren?

    Genetics can play a role in the development of Alzheimer's/dementia, however, even if someone in your family does not have the disease, you can still develop any form of dementia including Alzheimer's.

  • Is dementia/Alzheimer's disease fatal?

    Alzheimer's disease is a fatal condition. However, over the last decade, researchers and scientists have made significant strides towards the goal of developing a cure for the disease.

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13 Sources
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