Whenever a person gets diagnosed with a serious illness, that is always an immeasurably tragic event both for them and for their friends and family. However, many people find it particularly heartbreaking when they have to see a loved one suffer through a disease that affects their cognitive abilities. In those cases, the patient can lose more than their health – they can lose a part of their personality.
And when it comes to talking about medical conditions which can have such devastating effects on the mind, the two terms you are likely to hear the most often are dementia and Alzheimer’s. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon to hear people use them interchangeably. And even though there is a strong connection between the two, this is a mistake.
In order to get to the bottom of the “dementia vs Alzheimer’s” issue, it is important to understand some fundamental differences between them. This is an important distinction to make for several reasons, primary among them being the treatment and/or management of the condition.
Dementia vs Alzheimer’s: The Main Difference
As mentioned, dementia and Alzheimer’s are not one and the same. In a way, they are not even in the same category.
The reason for this is that dementia is a much broader term. An umbrella term, if you like. As such, dementia is a designation that covers a host of different symptoms that have a very negative effect on a person’s memory, ability to communicate, and capability to independently carry out everyday activities.
On the other hand, Alzheimer’s is a specific neurodegenerative disease that damages the brain and causes one type of dementia. Not only that, but Alzheimer’s is actually the leading cause of dementia (thereby making it its most common form), responsible for somewhere between 60 and 70% of all cases.
Another way to explain the difference is to say that a person who has Alzheimer’s also has dementia. One type of dementia, to be precise. However, the opposite does not always apply. Therefore, someone suffering the symptoms of dementia may not have Alzheimer’s disease. Their problems can be due to some other cause – and there are, unfortunately, quite a few other conditions that can lead to dementia.
Now, while this should be enough to explain the basic difference between these two terms, it also explains how they are connected. Their symptoms can overlap so it really is not surprising that people often fail to distinguish between the two.
Another element which connects them is their link with age. As you are undoubtedly aware, older people have a much higher risk of developing both Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. However, this does not mean that younger people cannot suffer from these medical conditions. When the patient is under the age of 65, this is called early-onset Alzheimer’s/dementia. But, this does not make either of them a normal part of the aging process.
A Closer Look at Dementia
As mentioned, dementia is not any one particular disease. It is a syndrome encompassing a range of symptoms which hinder a person’s cognitive skills.
Depending on what caused it, different types of dementia exist. To make matters worse, a person can suffer from mixed dementia. As the name implies, this is a situation when there isn’t just one type of dementia present. In most cases, this will be Alzheimer’s disease combined with something else.
While Alzheimer’s dementia is by far the most common, many other conditions can also cause it. For example, a stroke (or several smaller strokes, as is typically the case) can create problems with the brain’s blood supply. Among other issues, this can lead to vascular dementia.
Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases can also be the causes. As can be the presence of Lewy bodies in the brain. Then, there are numerous infections or even prolonged drug abuse. The list of possible causes does not end here, and it is quite extensive.
All in all, the World Health Organization estimates that there are approximately 50 million people in the world coping with dementia.
A Closer Look at Alzheimer’s Disease
Unlike dementia, Alzheimer’s is a specific disease. And it is a bad one. It is a progressive condition which slowly causes brain cells to fail. This is particularly evident with a person’s memory but will spread to other areas as the disease progresses. In later stages, noticeable shrinkage of the brain matter is present.
When it comes to the cause of Alzheimer’s, medicine has still not been able to come up with an answer to that question. There are several theories which propose different explanations, but none have been officially recognized by the medical community at large.
Interestingly, the only way to definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s disease is through an autopsy. However, doctors can identify the condition with a large degree of accuracy. Still, this is yet another aspect which shows that modern medicine does not know nearly enough about this horrible disease.
Symptoms and Treatment
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s can vary quite a lot from person to person. Still, the early ones usually include memory loss (particularly short-term memory), issues with language, problems with decision-making, etc.
As the disease advances, issues with memory and communication become more pronounced, patients have problems with orientation (causing them to wander), and there are mood swings. In the final stages, patients may completely lose the ability to speak, and they will have trouble swallowing and walking.
When dementia is not caused by Alzheimer’s, the symptoms can be somewhat different. Although, there will still be a lot of overlap. For example, those suffering from Lewy body dementia are likely to experience hallucinations. Or, when the reason for dementia is either Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease, unintentional muscle movement is common in the early stages.
When it comes to treatment, it is important to point out that there is no cure for Alzheimer’s – the disease always leads to death. The best current medicine can do is temporarily alleviate certain symptoms.
For other types of dementia, treatment depends on the underlying cause. Sadly, most cases are also incurable, meaning full recovery is impossible and all you can do is manage some of the symptoms. However, there are a few forms of dementia which are reversible such as the one caused by the deficiency of vitamin B.
The terms dementia and Alzheimer’s are often confused. While certainly connected, they are not the same thing. Dementia is a syndrome while Alzheimer’s disease is one of its causes.
Both represent extremely serious medical conditions, which is why knowing the difference is all the more important. Hopefully, you will now be able to make the distinction.