What’s the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
When Alzheimer’s disease or dementia strikes a loved one, using the correct terminology may not always be top of mind. In fact, even medical experts say they don’t understand everything about the diseases.
So it’s no surprise that people often confuse the two terms, although the diseases they represent are quite different. How do Alzheimer’s and dementia differ, and what do you need to know if a loved one is diagnosed?
Dementia: A Set of Symptoms
Dementia is a broad term that describes symptoms, including cognitive impairment. Alzheimer’s disease is one possible cause of dementia, but there are others, including:
- Huntington’s disease.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
- Parkinson’s disease.
- Drug interactions.
- Vitamin deficiencies.
Symptoms of dementia are serious enough that they interfere with the normal activities of daily life. Along with cognitive impairment, symptoms can include memory loss, trouble with language, confusion, personality changes and impaired judgment. In addition, patients suffering from dementia may have problems moving, and they may hallucinate and become agitated and withdrawn.
To be diagnosed with dementia, a patient must demonstrate trouble with at least two cognitive functions, such as language and memory. Some causes of dementia, such as drug interactions, can be treated and reversed.
Alzheimer’s Disease: A Slow Progression
Alzheimer’s disease is just one of the multiple possible causes of dementia, but it accounts for as many as 70 percent of dementia cases in seniors. More than 5 million individuals in the United States currently are believed to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
An autopsy after a patient’s death is the only way to diagnose Alzheimer’s with certainty. Symptoms of the disease typically become apparent after the age of 60, although early-onset Alzheimer’s can strike patients decades sooner.
Progression occurs slowly, with most patients gradually declining over a number of years.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be similar to those found in other types of dementia and include:
- Confusion and disorientation.
- Problems with speaking and swallowing.
- Not knowing the time.
- Frequently losing personal items.
- Impaired ability to walk.
- Changes in behavior, personality and mood.
- Vision problems.
In the early stages, the disease can manifest as problems with remembering recent events, names and conversations. In addition, a patient may become depressed and apathetic.
Determining a Cause for Dementia
Doctors use a number of diagnostic tools in an effort to determine the cause of a patient’s dementia. Brain scans, blood tests and evaluations of mental status are among the screenings a doctor may use. In most cases, doctors can provide an accurate diagnosis of the cause.
Although dementia is sometimes reversible — for example, when it is caused by a vitamin deficiency — Alzheimer’s disease is progressive and irreversible.
Doctors do not completely understand the causes behind Alzheimer’s, but they believe that multiple factors can influence development of the disease; environment, genetics, age, lifestyle and other influences all can play a role.