Alzheimer’s and dementia are often used interchangeably. But are they the same?
These terms are often used to describe the same state of memory loss, but they're different and require different levels of care.
“Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but not all dementias are Alzheimer’s,” explains Maya Lichtenstein, MD, a neurologist at Geisinger’s Memory and Cognition Program. “There are many different forms of dementia, each with different symptoms and treatment plans.”
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s disease: Why knowing the difference matters
These two illnesses are similar; however, dementia is not an actual disease. Rather it’s an umbrella term for a variety of symptoms that can include memory loss, challenges with language and poor decision making. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, with 50 to 70 percent of dementia cases being Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, there are several types of dementia, each with similar symptoms, which can make it challenging for a doctor to accurately diagnose which type a person has.
Types of dementia
Dementia can take on several forms. After Alzheimer’s disease, the most common types include:
- Vascular dementia: Caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, this condition is thought to be related to strokes or hardening of the arteries. Patients with vascular dementia may have confusion, problems with completing tasks, the inability to concentrate for long stretches of time or gait changes.
- Lewy body dementia/Parkinson’s disease with dementia: These forms of dementia can cause trouble concentrating and planning, visual disturbances, fainting and difficulty walking. The two conditions are caused by the same disease process, but first symptoms and how they progress can be different.
- Mixed dementia: One of the more common categories of dementia, this occurs when a person has more than one type of underlying disease causing their dementia. Mixed dementia can cause mood changes, memory loss and confusion.
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH): A brain condition which involves the buildup of excess fluid in the brain’s ventricles, NPH causes balance and memory issues, as well as incontinence and mood changes.
- Huntington’s disease: A genetic condition that can cause dementia. The symptoms of Huntington’s disease can include changes in mood and behavior, motor symptoms like tics and gait changes, and can lead to dementia.
- Frontotemporal dementia: Also known as Pick’s disease, this type of dementia may run in families and can affect those as young as age 45. Symptoms can include behavioral and personality changes or speech and language problems.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD): Symptoms of this rare dementia often progress quickly and can include agitation, memory loss, confusion and involuntary movements. CJD is the rarest form of dementia, with one in 1 million people diagnosed annually.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS): Also referred to as Wernicke’s encephalopathy, WKS affects a person’s ability to retain and process information. It can be caused by vitamin B1 deficiency, which may be brought on by alcohol abuse.
“As we age, episodes of forgetfulness are normal. It’s when they become more frequent or more serious or start to affect daily function that we should begin to worry,” says Dr. Lichtenstein.
Signs of dementia
Early signs of dementia are usually mild and begin with simple forgetfulness, which can often be overlooked as “normal aging.” As dementia progresses, a person may become more confused and forgetful, repeat questions or have difficulty caring for themselves.
Someone who suffers from dementia typically has difficulty with two or more of the following tasks:
Signs of Alzheimer’s
Those with Alzheimer’s disease have slightly different symptoms, such as difficulty with completing daily tasks or being confused or irritable. You may also have memory loss or problems with cognition or find yourself searching for your car keys more frequently. Or that you’re not as steady on your feet as you once were.
“Receiving a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s can send someone’s life into a tailspin. However, awareness and education along with medicines are helping patients manage these conditions and live better, richer lives,” Dr. Lichtenstein says.