Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Feb 14, 2017 3 min

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is believed to account for at least half of all individuals affected, with some studies suggesting that seventy percent of all cases may be caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease vs dementia

The words Alzheimer’s and dementia are often used interchangeably and it can be confusing to understand the distinction. So, what is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

The Alzheimer’s Society defines dementia as a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. The word dementia refers to the signs and symptoms, rather than the specific causes of the condition.

The symptoms include difficulties with memory, reasoning, communication and behaviour. The changes can often be very subtle in the beginning, the sort of problems that all of us may suffer occasionally, but with time they can progress to affect personality, function and the ability to live independently.

What causes dementia?

Dementia is caused by damage to the brain. This can come from a number of disease processes, but by far the most common of these is Alzheimer’s disease, which is why it is often used as an umbrella term to describe dementia.

However, dementia can also develop as the result of a number of small strokes, known as vascular dementia. Less commonly it can occur as a result of degenerative diseases including Parkinson’s disease and the inherited condition Huntingdon’s chorea.

Alcohol and drug abuse, metabolic diseases including diabetes and thyroid disorders and infections such as HIV can also lead to dementia.

Although memory loss and problem-solving struggles consistently affect people with dementia, the specific symptoms experienced by an individual may vary depending on the exact part of the brain damaged and the underlying illness causing it.

The speed of deterioration in function is also dependent on the disease process involved.

Making a difference

Frustratingly we still haven’t managed to find a cure for most cases of dementia.

However, if you look at the list of potential causes, you may notice many conditions that we can medically control and treat. So, it is always worth investigating early signs and symptoms of dementia, instead of dismissing them as normal forgetfulness.

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By reducing risk factors such as smoking or obesity and controlling high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, we can slow down the process of degeneration.

Heart problems, including irregular rhythms can predispose to vascular dementia and treatment to control the heart beat or reduce the risk of mini-strokes can prevent deterioration in function.

There are a number of conditions that can be effectively treated so that some of the dementia symptoms can be reversed. These include dementia due to vitamin deficiencies and an underactive thyroid.

Hydrocephalus, or fluid collection on the brain can lead to symptoms of dementia developing, however surgery can drain this fluid and significantly improve memory and thinking.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is named after the doctor who first described the condition and is believed to account for at least half of all individuals affected, with some studies suggesting that seventy percent of all cases may be caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

It is a disease that develops gradually and progressively, with symptoms steadily getting worse as time passes. In fact, studies show that the early structural damage to the brain can be seen many years before any symptoms become apparent.

We still don’t fully understand the cause, but research has confirmed that abnormal proteins are deposited in the brain. These proteins can affect the normal cell connections and lead to the death or degeneration of brain cells. Later in the disease, scans show that the brains of sufferers can appear shrunken and small.

At first, an individual with Alzheimer’s disease may be forgetful, struggle to recall words or seem quiet or confused.

With time the disease can develop to affect all aspects of their life and personality. They may be unable to solve problems, complete familiar tasks or they may demonstrate poor judgment. The communication difficulties may affect their confidence, leading to withdrawal from work or social activities.

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Later you may find that their personality can be significantly affected and they may develop distressing and confusing delusions and hallucinations..

What can I do?

Alzheimer’s is a difficult disease, and receiving a diagnosis can be devastating both for the individual affected and for the rest of the family.

Although there’s no still no cure for Alzheimer’s, there is good evidence that getting the right support in place at an early stage can help maintain function for longer.

There are also medications available that can make a real difference to many people, so it is always worth seeing your doctor for assessment and advice.

With support, guidance and care you can maintain your wellbeing and your dignity and continue to live well with dementia.

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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