Cognitive decline is a concern that many of us may face as we age, either directly or indirectly through loved ones. Two terms you often hear in this context are Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. While they are related, they are not the same thing. Understanding the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia will help you better understand these complex conditions.
What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
Although you might hear people use Alzheimer’s and dementia to describe the same thing, they’re different.
Dementia describes symptoms that affect memory, communication and daily activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time, and the disease affects the parts of the brain that control thought processes, language and memory.
The risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia is higher for people older than 65, but people of all ages can develop either issue.
Dementia is a general term rather than a specific disease encompassing a wide range of cognitive impairments. When someone is diagnosed with dementia, it means they are experiencing a significant decline in cognitive function that interferes with their daily life and activities. These impairments can include:
- Memory loss: Difficulty remembering recent and past events, names and faces.
- Communication challenges: Struggles with language, including finding the right words and understanding conversations.
- Impaired reasoning and judgment: Difficulty making decisions and solving problems.
- Changes in behavior and personality: Mood swings, aggression, depression and altered social behavior.
Early signs of dementia
Early signs of dementia can be vague and subtle at first. Symptoms of dementia include trouble recalling recent events, confusion, difficulty concentrating, personality changes, withdrawal from family and friends and inability to do common daily tasks.
It’s easy to brush off early signs as typical aging issues. But, if several symptoms occur together, it’s best to see your primary care provider right away.
Alzheimer’s Disease: A specific neurodegenerative condition
Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is a specific neurodegenerative condition and is the most common cause of dementia, particularly among older adults. It is a specific brain disease that slowly causes issues with thinking and memory. It causes brain cells and connections between brain cells to die.
People with Alzheimer’s develop protein deposits in the brain that doctors call plaques and tangles. Plaques block neuron communication, and tangles twist together and kill brain cells. Most people who get Alzheimer’s are older than 65, but it can affect younger people, too. Like other types of dementia, doctors don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s, and there is no cure.
Unlike dementia, which is a syndrome, Alzheimer’s is a disease with distinct characteristics:
- Brain abnormalities: Alzheimer’s is characterized by the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, including amyloid plaques and tau tangles.
- Memory and cognitive decline: It primarily affects memory and cognitive functions, leading to progressive and irreversible decline in these areas.
- Symptoms: People with Alzheimer’s may experience memory loss, difficulty with problem-solving, confusion, disorientation and changes in mood and behavior.
Early signs of Alzheimer’s
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is memory loss, which begins to affect daily activities. People might start asking the same question repeatedly.
Another early symptom involves struggling to solve problems and make plans. Concentration gets difficult, and people take longer to do simple tasks. Familiar tasks might get hard, too.
Confusion will also often set in. An Alzheimer’s patient may have trouble tracking seasons and the passage of time. Conversations can get strained as it gets hard to think of words or keep hold of a thought. It’s also typical for an Alzheimer’s patient to misplace things.
What are the other types of dementia?
It’s important to note that while Alzheimer’s is a significant contributor to dementia cases, it’s not the only cause. Various other conditions can lead to dementia, each with its unique characteristics and underlying causes. Some of these include:
- Vascular dementia: Caused by impaired blood flow to the brain, it is often a result of strokes or other vascular issues.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies: Also called Lewy body dementia, this condition is characterized by abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies in the brain.
- Frontotemporal dementia: Affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain and often leads to personality and behavior changes.
Diagnosis and treatment
Although there is a difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, the key to effectively managing either one is identifying its underlying cause. Diagnosis typically involves a comprehensive evaluation by a health care professional, including medical history, cognitive tests and sometimes brain imaging. Once the cause is determined, appropriate treatment and care plans can be developed.
Seeing your primary care provider regularly is a good place to start to find out if your memory issues are normal or are a symptom of something more serious.
And with your loved ones, don’t ignore memory issues or changes in personality and assume they’re just signs of aging. Learn more about the neurology services we offer at Bon Secours.