What’s The Difference Between Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease?

What’s The Difference Between Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease?

When you hear the words dementia and Alzheimer’s do you think they’re the same or different?

If your answer is the same, you’re not alone. Many people in the media, general public and even medical professionals use the terms interchangeably as if they’re the same.

They aren’t.

The simplest way to explain the difference is that Alzheimer’s disease (often abbreviated AD) is a cause of dementia. One reason they’re often confused is because AD is the most common cause of dementia.

Rather than one disease, dementia is a group of symptoms. Dementia is a brain illness that often affects multiple cognitive abilities including memory, reasoning, planning and behavior. The symptoms are severe enough to Interfere with what are described as the activities of daily living, which include things like dressing, eating, and grooming. Dementia lasts for over 6 months, and is a loss of brain function, so was not present at birth. Additionally, it is not associated with a loss or altered state of consciousness like a coma.

What are some of the causes of dementia?

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Vascular disease (usually strokes)
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Lewy body disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Drug interactions
  • Infections (such as HIV)
  • Vitamin deficiencies (such as vitamin B-12)
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Frontotemporal disease dementia
  • Head trauma
  • This is not a complete list

And despite what you may have heard or read, dementia is not less serious than AD. Other causes of dementia are often just as severe and devastating. Some like hypothyroidism and drug interactions may be reversible when treated early and appropriately.

It’s important to find the cause of dementia, or at least the probable cause. This is especially true when it’s one that is potentially treatable and even reversible. Evaluation includes a history and physical exam to determine the appropriate laboratory tests, radiology tests, other tests and referrals.

Knowing the cause of dementia can help the family and caregivers to provide the best care today and in the future. It can make a big difference in the treatment and care. Someone with Parkinson’s disease for example needs different medications than someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease – also sometimes called Alzheimer’s dementia – may be responsible for up to 70% of the cases of dementia. It’s named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer who first described it in the medical literature in the early 1900s. The patient he described was a 51-year old woman.

While most people with dementia are elders, there is also an Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease that occurs before age 65. It is often initially difficult to diagnose, affects people when they’re providing for their families and affects men more than women. It has been found in someone as young as 27. And there is an association of persons with Down’s syndrome and Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease.

While over 50% of those over the age of 85 have AD, not every elder has it. In the past it was often called senile dementia, which was sometimes shortened to senility. It’s important to realize that any form of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease is not a part of normal aging.

Another reason for confusion is that AD cannot be diagnosed with 100% accuracy while the person affected is alive. Many physicians were taught to diagnose someone with probable Alzheimer’s, and not to say it is a definite diagnosis, unless an autopsy proves it.

In the past this may have been reflected in the certified causes of death. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. In contrast, before the 1990s, it was not listed in the top 10. Some of this may be attributed to reluctance on the part of some physicians to certify it as the cause of death when the diagnosis was not 100% confirmed. And it has the unfortunate distinction of being the only one of the top 10 causes of death that currently has no treatment or cure.

How common is Alzheimer’s disease?

In the U.S., over 5 million people are living with AD, and they have are over 15 million unpaid caregivers.

In summary, dementia is a group of symptoms affecting brain function with a loss of abilities and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.


About The Author 
Dr. Ina combines her passions for caregiving and writing in her award-winning blog, Caregiving With Purpose. She educates, empowers and supports care partners who are the unsung caregiving heroes in their caregiving journey and beyond. Additionally she is a Purple Angel Ambassador for Dementia, speaker, and has created and co-hosted the first global Alzheimer’s Telesummit Webinar.
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