Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: What Are the Differences?

If you have a loved one showing signs of memory loss, you may be scared and worried. There are two types of conditions we often associate with memory loss—dementia and Alzheimer’s. Often the two are used interchangeably but there are key differences to know.  

When you know these differences, it will help you understand what your loved one is going through and also help you determine if they need help or specialized memory care or when they need it more precisely. 

What is Dementia? 

Dementia is a set of symptoms that broadly affect someone’s cognitive abilities and function. Dementia can impact problem-solving, thinking and focus, memory, language use, and visual perception.  

Alzheimer’s is one particular type of dementia.  

Dementia is a broad term describing a set of symptoms that don’t necessarily have a particular cause. There are a lot of conditions that are associated with dementia. 

For example, vascular dementia occurs when someone has a stroke or a similar condition blocking blood flow to the brain. Lewy body dementia results from protein deposits in the brain, and there’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy that occurs because of repeated traumatic brain injuries.  

Some situations can create symptoms similar to dementia, but these may be reversible when the underlying condition is treated.  

For example, vitamin B12 deficiency, alcohol consumption, and traumatic head injuries can have symptoms similar to dementia. Depression, anxiety and stress may create cognitive symptoms, as can thyroid, kidney and liver problems.  

Dementia isn’t inevitable when you age, but aging is one of the primary risk factors.  

Signs and symptoms of dementia can include: 

  • Detachment 
  • Loss of interest 
  • Repeating questions 
  • Anxiety or distress 
  • Low mood 
  • Psychosis 
  • Walking around for no reason 
  • Inappropriate behaviors 
  • Sleep disturbances 

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease? 

Alzheimer’s is something researchers believe is caused by unusual proteins building up and forming plaques and tangles in the brain. The proteins impact the brain cells’ ability to communicate, which damages the cells, diminishing their function.  

Researchers have discovered the buildups tend to occur in particular parts of the brain. The hippocampus, which plays a role in long-term memory recall, is one example. Early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s include confusion and problems remembering things.  

Over time the symptoms can worsen and include problems using and understanding words, mood and behavioral changes, and confusion about times, events and places. People with Alzheimer’s may become suspicious about the people around them and generally experience disorientation.  

Some of the earliest symptoms can include challenges with planning, difficulty completing familiar tasks, or memory loss affecting daily life. Losing items or an inability to retrace steps can also be early signs.  

Are There Treatments? 

Currently, there isn’t a cure for dementia, and the damage isn’t reversible. However, if the symptoms occur because of identifiable causes like vitamin deficiencies, then there may options to slow or stop the progression.  

For Alzheimer’s, treatments can help with the symptoms and improve quality of life. These treatments include taking medicines, getting regular exercise, sunlight exposure, and cognitive training. Having a safe, comfortable environment can also help.  

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a new drug called aducanumab, which may help slow Alzheimer’s progression, but the results have been mixed. Researchers say that in addition to that medication, other drugs may be more effective in the pipeline. Many researchers hope the approval of the initial drug will help lead to more development and testing of Alzheimer’s medicines in the near future.  

There are things that you can do to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or delay the onset. Factors can increase the risk include low social contact, obesity, smoking, hypertension, physical inactivity and alcohol consumption. Things you can’t control but that are risk factors include hearing impairment, pollution exposure, lack of education, traumatic brain injury and depression.  

A big myth that needs to be dispelled is that dementia or Alzheimer’s don’t have a cure; therefore, you shouldn’t get a diagnosis because it won’t do any good. In reality, with the correct diagnosis, your treatment team or your loved one’s treatment providers can begin to deal with the symptoms. They can help make sure patients are in otherwise good health as much as possible.  

Finally, many people with a dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis do continue to live their lives, and they’re able to do things they enjoy and focus on the positives rather than the negatives.  

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