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Alzheimer’s and Dementia are often used interchangeably. But are they the same?

If you’ve ever cared for a loved one who has Alzheimer’s or dementia, you know that it can be challenging and overwhelming at times. Seeing someone you care about undergo memory loss, confusion, agitation and other related symptoms may leave you yourself feeling confused, scared or even angry. 

Although Alzheimer’s and dementia are often used interchangeably to describe the same state of memory loss, the two are quite different and require different levels of care.

“Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, but not all dementias are Alzheimer’s,” explains Dr. Maya Lichtenstein, 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 experience 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:

  • Memory
  • Speech
  • Judgment
  • Concentration

Signs of Alzheimer’s

Those with Alzheimer’s disease will experience slightly different symptoms, such as struggling with completing daily tasks or being confused or irritable. You may experience 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.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can leave little time to care for yourself. 

“A common problem we hear from caregivers is burn out—they’re stressed and their health is suffering. It is OK ask for help or take a break. When you’re not taking care of yourself, you can’t provide the best care for your loved ones,” Dr. Lichtenstein advises.

Here are a few ways to give yourself a much-needed break.

  • Ask for help
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Take breaks wherever possible
  • Visit your doctor regularly
  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Find a support group
  • Consider reaching out for home health support

 

D-CARE study at Geisinger

Are you caring for someone with dementia or struggling with dementia yourself? We invite those affected by dementia and their caregiver to be part of our national research study that will compare three different models of dementia care over the course of 18 months.

If you’re interested in participating or for more information, call 570-808-7215.


Next steps:

Make an appointment with Dr. Maya Lichtenstein

Learn more about neurology at Geisinger

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are different.

Learn about our dementia care study