The slow process of losing oneself or a loved one to dementia can be a terrifying and saddening experience. Learning everything you can about what is happening can at least give you a basis to build an understanding. It can perhaps help you to come to terms with it. Plus, knowing what symptoms to look out for can help doctors make an accurate diagnosis.
Despite the overlap in the symptoms and signs, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not the same. How is Alzheimer’s different from dementia? The simplest answer is that dementia is a syndrome (in other words, a group of symptoms), while Alzheimer’s is one of the conditions that can cause dementia. The full answer is somewhat more nuanced, and knowing the difference is important.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a collection of symptoms that are grouped under one name, rather than a specific disease in and of itself. It negatively affects the proper functioning of the brain, and it impacts cognitive functions like reasoning, memory, and judgment. It is an umbrella term that includes Alzheimer’s, along with a number of other potential causes.
It’s possible to have more than one form of dementia, and this is called mixed dementia. It is usually caused by having more than one condition that can result in dementia.
As dementia progresses, it can have increasingly worse effects on cognitive function. It can limit the sufferer’s ability to live independently, making it one of the leading causes of disability in old age.
Causes of Dementia
According to the World Health Organization, there are 47.5 million people worldwide suffering from dementia. Alzheimer’s is the leading cause, accounting for 50-70% of all the people living with dementia. Vascular dementia is the second most common cause, affecting around 10% of dementia sufferers. This is caused by strokes or a restriction to the blood flow in the brain, which results in the death of brain cells.
Other potential causes include:
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- chronic drug use
The early symptoms of dementia can be mild, and so they are sometimes easy to miss. It affects memory, which can result in minor bouts of forgetfulness and confusion. For example, it can manifest as the person repeating questions or getting lost in a normally familiar place. However, dementia is a progressive syndrome, which means the symptoms will worsen over time.
As time passes, dementia’s effects on memory and judgment get worse. The sufferer may start to forget the names and faces of friends and family, and they can start to struggle with maintaining personal hygiene. Looking after themselves will become more difficult, and decision-making will start to worsen, leading to a situation where they may need to have supervised care. Keeping track of time can become harder, and behavioral changes can cause aggression and depression.
While the different types of dementia can have some varying symptoms, dementia sufferers will have difficulties with at least two of the following:
- Reasoning and judgment
- Communication and speech
- Focus and concentration
- Visual perception (such as visual hallucinations, or trouble seeing movement or the difference between colors)
Differences Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia Symptoms
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s can overlap with other forms and causes of dementia. While difficulties with memory, communication, and thinking clearly are common to both Alzheimer’s and other types, some of the symptoms specific to Alzheimer’s include:
- behavioral changes
- impaired judgment
- trouble recalling conversations or recent events
- difficulty walking, swallowing, or speaking in later stages of the condition
Some other types of dementia also include these symptoms, but they will also have other, distinctive symptoms. For example, people with either Huntington’s or Parkinson’s disease will manifest uncontrolled movement, like their hands shaking, which won’t happen in people with Alzheimer’s.
Causes and Effects of Alzheimer’s
Scientists are yet to discover what triggers Alzheimer’s disease, but they do have some understanding of the mechanism by which it affects the brain. This can start to occur years before symptoms become noticeable.
Two proteins, amyloid and tau, form abnormal deposits known as plaques and tangles respectively. This, along with reductions in neurotransmitter levels in the brain, causes the connections between brain cells to deteriorate. The result is that brain cells begin to die, and in advanced cases of the disease, the brain shows a marked reduction in size.
Treating Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Because Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, some of the treatments will overlap, though the treatments for dementia can also include methods that aren’t helpful for Alzheimer’s sufferers. This depends on the type and underlying cause of the condition.
There is not yet a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, though there are many avenues of research being explored. Treatment is currently limited to managing the symptoms, and it can include:
- medications to help with memory loss, such as cholinesterase inhibitors (these prevent the breakdown of neurotransmitter chemical acetylcholine in the brain)
- antipsychotic medications to help manage behavioral changes
- medicines to help with changes to sleep patterns
Certain causes of dementia can be treated directly, which will also potentially help with treating dementia itself. These conditions include dementia caused by:
- metabolic disorders
- chronic drug use
Unfortunately, in most cases, the effects of dementia can’t be reversed, but they are often treatable using the right medication. This will depend on the cause of the syndrome, and it can sometimes be the same as the treatments for Alzheimer’s. As the symptoms progress, in-home care or relocation to a nursing home may become necessary.
For everyone who has dementia, the symptoms will worsen over time. Alzheimer’s is considered a terminal illness, and the average sufferer will have an estimated lifespan of between four and eight years after diagnosis. However, people have been known to live for decades with the condition. People diagnosed over the age of 80 are unlikely to survive for more than three years, but younger people can live for many more.
Overview – How Is Alzheimer’s Different from Dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms, which include memory loss, trouble thinking, and speech difficulties, among others. It is caused by a number of different conditions, one of which is Alzheimer’s disease. Essentially, the difference is that Alzheimer’s is a disease, and dementia is one of the symptoms of that disease, as well as of other conditions.