What's the Difference between Dementia and Alzheimer's?

Do you know the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Some people think that they’re the same thing, whereas others think they’re completely different. The truth is that dementia refers to a group of symptoms and Alzheimer’s refers to a disease.

Alzheimer’s is one potential cause of dementia, but it’s not the only cause. This means that everyone with Alzheimer’s has dementia, but not everyone who has dementia has Alzheimer’s. There are many links between the two, but it’s important to know the differences, especially when caring for someone experiencing symptoms.


What is Dementia?

Dementia refers to a set of symptoms that occur when brain cells are damaged. Dementia isn’t a disease in and of itself, but rather it’s the symptoms that are caused by some other underlying disease or condition. When someone is diagnosed with dementia, the diagnosis is based on the symptoms being displayed, not what’s causing them.
While the risk of dementia does increase with age, it’s not a normal part of the aging process. There are several reasons why the brain may develop dementia symptoms, with some examples being abnormal protein deposits, poor blood flow, and degeneration of brain cells.

Symptoms
Symptoms of dementia can vary based on the underlying cause and how far it has progressed. They mainly affect thinking, memory, speech, and emotion.

Some examples of dementia symptoms include:
•    Memory issues
•    Difficulty communicating or speaking properly
•    Disorientation and confusion
•    Behavioural changes or emotional issues such as anger or depression
•    Problems with focus or attention
•    Difficulty completing normal tasks


Usually, the onset of dementia occurs gradually and symptoms get progressively worse. Many people may think that the first signs of dementia may be memory issues, but this isn’t always the case. Different types of dementia damage different parts of the brain, so the early symptoms depend on the underlying cause.

Causes
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, making up an estimated 60-80% of all cases, but there are other causes as well. Some other types include Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia. In some cases, people may be affected by two or more causes at the same time, which is known as mixed dementia. There are also specific cases of dementia caused by hormone issues or vitamin deficiencies that can be reversed if detected.

Management
While there are rare cases of dementia that can be reversed, the majority of cases aren’t curable or reversible. That being said, many forms can be managed with medication and therapy. There are medications that can be taken to treat or slow some of the symptoms that come with dementia, or improve the underlying condition causing the symptoms. The goal of managing dementia is to provide the patient with the best quality of life possible given the unfortunate circumstances.  


Patients with dementia are diagnosed with a set of symptoms, but the underlying disease or cause may not necessarily be known. Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a disease on its own which is caused by degeneration of neural connections in the brain.  

What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that causes dementia. People who have Alzheimer’s develop plaques and tangles in the brain which cause damage and sever connections between neurons. This causes brain cells to die and can result in significant loss of brain tissue and shrinkage in serious cases.

Plaques refer to abnormal protein clusters that block the signals sent between cells, whereas tangles are twisted protein fibres in dead cells that damage the brain’s transport system. These plaques and tangles start forming and damaging brain cells long before the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to manifest.

Symptoms
Like dementia, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to occur gradually and progressively get worse. The disease affects everyone differently, but there are three main stages of Alzheimer’s that describe how symptoms change over time.


In early-stage Alzheimer’s, symptoms include mild memory issues such as forgetting names and misplacing things. In the middle-stage of Alzheimer’s, people may experience more serious memory issues and episodes of confusion, as well as behavioural and emotional changes. Late-stage Alzheimer’s patients usually have little awareness of their surroundings, have difficulty communicating, and need constant assistance.

Causes
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s isn’t known, but it’s thought to be a combination of a variety of factors including lifestyle, genetics, and environment. People who have a family history of Alzheimer’s have a slightly higher risk of developing it themselves, but the majority of the risk comes from lifestyle factors and other diseases.


The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada states that half the cases of Alzheimer’s are caused by seven modifiable risk factors: diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, depression, cognitive inactivity or low education, and physical inactivity.  Alzheimer’s occurs most often after the age of 65, but around 5% of cases are classified as early-onset Alzheimer’s which can develop earlier.

Management
It’s not possible to confirm the presence Alzheimer’s until after death when examining the brain. However, there are tests that doctors can do to diagnose the disease with a high degree of certainty. The average life expectancy of a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is usually between 8-10 years, but it can be as short as three years or as long as 20 years.


Like dementia, Alzheimer’s has no cure but can be managed with medications to improve the patient’s quality of life. These medications are mainly used to treat the cognitive issues that affect the brain by increasing the communication between nerve cells. These medications don’t slow the progression of the disease, but they have the potential to improve some of the symptoms.

Patients in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia will need a lot of support from family members and caregivers as they will likely be unable to adequately care for themselves. It’s a difficult burden for family members to deal with, but it’s important to try to understand what they’re experiencing and keep that in mind when taking care of them. Spreading awareness about dementia and Alzheimer’s, the differences between them, and ways to improve patient quality of life goes a long way in helping people understand and deal with these conditions.

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