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What is the Difference Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia?

By May 12, 2017Dementia

There is a significant difference between Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, although we tend to use the two terms interchangeably. If you notice that your loved one is exhibiting the early signs of cognitive decline it will help to know the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease so that you can inform physicians and seek the right types of support.

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are very different diseases. They are related in that they both affect the brain and diminish cognition, but that is where the similarities end.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms that are severe enough to interfere with daily life, including impaired thinking and memory. It is a syndrome, rather than a disease and is often associated with the cognitive decline of aging. Some forms of dementia, such as those caused by a medication side effects or a vitamin deficiency can actually be reversed through the right treatments. Dementia can also be caused by Vascular dementia, Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but not all dementia is Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is, as the name implies, a disease that destroys the brain. It is a very specific type of dementia that causes the majority of dementia cases; estimates range from 50 to 80%. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have impaired thought, impaired speech, and confusion. They may have difficulty remembering recent conversations, names or events, become apathetic or depressed. As the disease progresses people exhibit poor judgment, disorientation, behavioral and personality changes and may have difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking. It is irreversible and cannot currently be treated or cured.

To complicate matters, each person will exhibit these symptoms differently. No two people are alike in the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease or the manner in which the symptoms are presented.

Here are some examples of the symptoms of dementia and the differences in how they are exhibited in people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory lapses:

  • With dementia, a person will forget recently learned information and will be unable to recall it later. They begin to forget things more often.
  • People with Alzheimer’s disease will forget recently learned information and experience worsening memory loss. They will also find it hard to complete common, everyday tasks like the steps in preparing a meal, playing a card game or how to make a phone call.

Activities of daily living:

  • A person with dementia may have trouble keeping up with activities of daily living (ADLs) such as personal hygiene such as bathing and grooming.
  • A person with Alzheimer’s disease many not know how to dress and wear winter clothing in the summer or summer clothing in the winter. They may have increasingly poor judgment, talking to strangers or giving away money to telemarketers. They may put things where they don’t belong like putting ice cream in the cupboard or car keys in the freezer.

Dementia can be diagnosed and the causes can be determined. According to the Mayo Clinic,

“With a thorough screening including blood tests (to rule out other causes of dementia such as vitamin deficiency), a mental status evaluation, neuropsychological testing, and sometimes a brain scan, doctors can accurately diagnose the cause of the dementia symptoms in 90 percent of the cases.”

Alzheimer’s disease can only be diagnosed after death, using “… a microscopic examination of brain tissue, which checks for plaques and tangles.”

It is very difficult to tell the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the early stages. If you notice that your loved one is showing any of the signs of cognitive decline consistently, consult his or her primary care physician who can conduct a preliminary exam and then make a referral to a neurologist. Beyond this conversation, you may need to make some adjustments in your home to make home life more comfortable for your senior.

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