It is common to hear the terms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease being thrown out together in one sentence. For most people, the two conditions are believed to be synonymous. However, the two terms are anything but the same. Dementia is a general term that is used to refer to a decline in a person’s mental ability that is severe enough to cause interference with their daily life. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s disease is a specific disease that is one of the most common causes of dementia.
Dementia, though, is not a specific disease and can be considered to be a symptom instead. It is necessary to learn about the two conditions and to understand the differences between them so as to receive the correct treatment for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Read on to learn more about dementia vs. Alzheimer’s.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease
First of all, let’s get one thing cleared up – dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not the same things. Dementia is a term used to refer to the symptoms that affect a person’s memory, their performance of daily activities, and their communication abilities.(1)
Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is one of the most common types of dementia that affects adults.(2) Alzheimer’s disease continues getting worse over time, and it affects a person’s memory, thoughts, language, and many other factors in their life.
It is possible even for younger people to develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but your risk considerably increases as you age. Nevertheless, neither dementia non Alzheimer’s is considered to be a normal part of aging.
The symptoms of these two conditions may overlap, but distinguishing these two conditions is essential for the management and treatment of both dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Understanding Both the Conditions
Dementia is not considered to be a specific disease. It is, instead, looked upon as being a syndrome. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that do not have any definitive diagnosis. Dementia is, thus, considered to be a group of symptoms that impacts a person’s mental cognitive tasks, including reasoning and memory.
Dementia is used more as an umbrella term, and Alzheimer’s disease can fall under this umbrella term. Dementia can be caused due to a wide range of conditions, out of which the most common one is Alzheimer’s disease.
It is possible for people to have more than one type of dementia. This condition is known as mixed dementia, and usually, people who have mixed dementia, experience multiple conditions that are likely to contribute to dementia. Unfortunately, diagnosing mixed dementia is only possible in an autopsy.
As dementia progresses, it starts to have a huge effect on the person’s ability to function independently. Dementia also becomes a major cause of disability in older adults, and at the same time, it places a financial and emotional burden on the family and caregivers of the patient.
According to the World Health Organization, there are 47.5 million people worldwide who are living with dementia.(1)
Symptoms of Dementia
The early signs of dementia are easily overlooked because they tend to be mild. After all, people don’t pay much attention to simple episodes of forgetfulness. People with dementia often have trouble keeping track of what time of the day it is and also tend to lose their way in familiar places.
As the condition progresses, confusion and forgetfulness start to increase, and it may become more challenging to recall faces and names. Personal care also becomes a challenge. Some of the apparent signs of dementia can include:
- Inadequate hygiene
- Poor decision making
- Repetitious questioning
In the most advanced stage of dementia, people become incapable of taking care of themselves. They start to struggle even more with keeping track of time and remembering places they are familiar with or the names of people they know. Behavior also continues to change, turning into aggression and depression over time.
Causes of Dementia
Younger people are unlikely to develop dementia. As you grow older, it is more likely that you may develop dementia. Dementia occurs when some cells in the brain get damaged. There are many conditions that can cause dementia, including degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s. Each of these causes of dementia cause damage to a different set of brain cells.
Alzheimer’s disease, though, is responsible for causing almost 50 to 70 percent of all dementia cases.(3)
Some other causes of dementia may include:
The group of symptoms that negatively affects a person’s memory is collectively referred to as dementia. Alzheimer’s, though, is a progressive disease that affects the brain and slowly leads to impairment in cognitive function and memory. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown, and there is no cure available for the disease as of today.
It is possible for younger people also to get Alzheimer’s though it is rare. The symptoms of this progressive disease typically begin after the age of 60.
The time from the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s until death can be as little as just three years in people who are over the age of 80 years. However, this time period can be much longer for people who are diagnosed at a younger age.
Alzheimer’s disease causes damage to the brain, which typically begins years before any of the symptoms start to appear. In people with Alzheimer’s disease, deposits of an abnormal protein that form plaques and tangles have been found in the brain. It is believed that due to this, a connection between the cells is lost, and the cells start to die off. In advanced cases of Alzheimer’s, the brain begins to show significant shrinkage.
It is not possible to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease with a 100 percent accuracy when a person is alive. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can only be confirmed when the brain is analyzed and looked at under a microscope during an autopsy. However, it is possible for specialists to make a correct diagnosis at least 90 percent of the time.(4)
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Comparing the Symptoms
It is common for the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s to overlap. However, there are some critical differences between them, as well. For example, both of these conditions can cause:
- Memory impairment
- Communication impairment
- A decline in the ability to think
Meanwhile, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Difficulty in remembering recent conversations or events
- Difficulty in remembering names of people and faces
- Impaired judgment
- Behavioral changes
- Difficulty swallowing, speaking or walking towards the advanced stages of the disease
There are some forms of dementia that also share some of the same symptoms, but they may also include or exclude other symptoms that help doctors come to a differential diagnosis.
For example, Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) shares many of the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s, particularly the symptoms from advanced Alzheimer’s. (5) (6) However, people with Lewy Body Dementia are also more likely to experience certain initial symptoms that are not similar to Alzheimer’s. These include symptoms such as difficulties with balance, sleep disturbances, and visual hallucinations.
People with dementia that is caused by Huntington’s(7) or Parkinson’s(8) are also more likely to experience involuntary movement, especially during the starting stages of the disease.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Differences Based on Treatment Protocols
The treatment for dementia depends on the underlying cause and type of dementia a person has. At the same, though, many of the treatment plans for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease also tend to overlap.
Treatment for Dementia
In many cases of dementia, the patient may experience relief from the symptoms of the underlying condition causing dementia is treated. Conditions that are most likely to respond to treatment include the cases of dementia that are caused due to:
- Metabolic diseases
In most cases, though, dementia is not reversible. However, some forms of dementia are treatable, and there are many medications that help manage the symptoms of dementia. Treatments for dementia also vary depending on the cause.
For example, in people whose dementia is caused by Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia, doctors prefer treating them with cholinesterase inhibitors.(9)(10)
Cholinesterase inhibitors are often also used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.(11)
Treatment for vascular dementia focuses on controlling and preventing any further damage to the blood vessels of the brain and focuses on preventing a stroke.
People with dementia will also benefit from taking the help of supportive services from caregivers and home health aides. A nursing home or an assisted living facility may also be required for dementia patients as the disease progresses to advanced stages.
Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease
Keep in mind that there is no cure available for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are many options available today that help in the management of symptoms of the disease. These include:
- Taking medications for memory loss, including cholinesterase inhibitors donepezil (brand name Aricept), memantine (brand name Namenda), and rivastigmine (brand name Exelon).(12)
- Taking medications for the behavioral changes, including antipsychotics(13)
- Taking medications for depression and sleep changes
- Trying alternative remedies for boosting brain function as well as overall health. These include fish oil or coconut oil.
The outlook for people who are living with dementia depends on the underlying cause of dementia. There are several types of treatments available today to manage the symptoms of dementia that is caused by Parkinson’s. However, there is no way to really slow down or stop dementia that is caused by Parkinson’s disease.
People with vascular dementia can manage to slow down the progression of the disease in some cases, but it is still likely to shorten a person’s lifespan.
There are certain types of dementia that are reversible, but most are still irreversible and go on to cause more impairment as the disease progresses.
On the other hand, Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness, and there is no cure available even today. The disease occurs in three distinct stages, and the length of time each of these stages lasts for varies from person to person. An average person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is said to have a lifespan of around five to eight years after diagnosis. However, many people have gone on to live with Alzheimer’s for nearly 20 years after diagnosis.
If you are concerned that you may be experiencing the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s, then book an appointment with your doctor at the earliest. Starting treatment when the disease is at an early stage can help you manage the symptoms better and also increases your lifespan.
- Who.int. (2020). Dementia. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
- National Institute on Aging. (2020). What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?. [online] Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-alzheimers-disease [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
- Cleveland Clinic. (2020). Dementia | Cleveland Clinic. [online] Available at: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases_conditions/hic_Types_of_Dementia [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
- National Institute on Aging. (2020). Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias. [online] Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
- National Institute on Aging. (2020). What Is Lewy Body Dementia?. [online] Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-lewy-body-dementia [Accessed 15 Jan. 2020].
- Perry, E.K., Haroutunian, V., Davis, K.L., Levy, R., Lantos, P., Eagger, S., Honavar, M., Dean, A., Griffiths, M. and McKeith, I.G., 1994. Neocortical cholinergic activities differentiate Lewy body dementia from classical Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroreport, 5(7), pp.747-749.
- Brandt, J.A. and Bylsma, F.W., 1993. The dementia of Huntington’s disease.
- Emre, M., 2003. Dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease. The Lancet Neurology, 2(4), pp.229-237.
- Raina, P., Santaguida, P., Ismaila, A., Patterson, C., Cowan, D., Levine, M., Booker, L. and Oremus, M., 2008. Effectiveness of cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine for treating dementia: evidence review for a clinical practice guideline. Annals of internal medicine, 148(5), pp.379-397.
- Rolinski, M., Fox, C., Maidment, I. and McShane, R., 2012. Cholinesterase inhibitors for dementia with Lewy bodies, Parkinson’s disease dementia and cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3).
- Birks, J.S., 2006. Cholinesterase inhibitors for Alzheimer’s disease. Cochrane database of systematic reviews, (1).
- Nordberg, A. and Svensson, A.L., 1998. Cholinesterase inhibitors in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Drug safety, 19(6), pp.465-480.
- Ballard, C.G., Waite, J. and Birks, J., 2006. Atypical antipsychotics for aggression and psychosis in Alzheimer’s disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1).