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Dementia vs. Alzheimer's: Differences, Diagnosis and Treatment

If someone were to ask you what to name a disorder that causes memory loss, what comes to mind? Chances are you’d say either Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Perhaps you use the two interchangeably. Or, perhaps you thought Alzheimer’s and dementia are two completely separate conditions but can’t quite put your finger on what those differences are. Here, we’ll go over how Alzheimer’s and dementia are the same, and where they differ.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

Dementia is the umbrella term that describes a decline in mental ability severe enough that it impacts everyday life. Alzheimer’s disease is simply one type, or cause, of dementia. About 60 to 80% of all dementia cases are Alzheimer’s disease. Other types of dementia include Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia. Dementia is not a natural part of aging — it is a progressive condition with no known cure.

Symptoms & Causes of Dementia

In general, dementia is caused by damage to brain cells. As a result, the part of the brain with damaged cells can’t operate as it normally does. Depending on what type of dementia you have, this brain cell damage could be caused by a number of factors. For example, vascular dementia is caused by a stroke, and Lewy body dementia is caused when protein deposits called Lewy bodies form in areas of the brain involved in thinking, memory and motor control, though scientists don’t know exactly what causes this to begin. Symptoms of dementia may include:

  • Memory loss that may fluctuate
  • Difficulty planning and organizing
  • Visual and spatial challenges
  • Agitation and paranoia
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations, particularly in early stages of dementia
  • Disorientation
  • Inability to perform complex tasks

Symptoms & Causes of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s occurs when a protein called beta-amyloid builds up in the brain between nerve cells and forms plaques. Another protein called tau also builds up in the brain and forms tangles. Neurons stop working, shrink and eventually die. This damage begins in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory, and gradually spreads to other parts of the brain. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease to start. In some cases it is hereditary or genetic (particularly the rare early-onset Alzheimer’s). However, experts say this does not account for a majority of Alzheimer’s cases. Other factors like level of exercise, blood pressure, cholesterol and loneliness can also play a role in increasing your Alzheimer’s risk. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease may include:

  • Memory problems: finding words, short-term memory difficulties, eventually forgetting long-term memories
  • Impaired judgment
  • Wandering or getting lost
  • Repeating questions
  • Difficulty with money
  • Confusion
  • Sleep changes that lead to being awake at night and sleeping during the day
  • Personality changes
  • Unable to communicate
  • Unable to follow multiple steps like getting dressed or preparing food
  • Hallucinations, delusions, paranoia
  • Eventually unable to carry out basic human functions like swallowing

Different Treatment Plans

Depending on which type of dementia you have, your treatment plan might vary. For Alzheimer’s, there are a few different medications that can help lessen or delay your cognitive symptoms. These include cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. Non-pharmaceutical treatment strategies aim to help keep people with Alzheimer’s disease safe and prevent situations that can lead to confusion or agitation — for example, keeping a regular schedule and “entering their reality” by not arguing about incorrect statements they make.

Other types of dementia face similar difficulties in treatment. There are no drugs that fully treat dementia or prevent its progression. Cholinesterase inhibitors can be used to help lessen symptoms of Lewy body dementia, but other types of dementia like frontotemporal dementia have no specific drugs. Strategies are typically aimed at improving quality-of-life and comfort.

Dementia Diagnosis Outlook vs. Alzheimer’s Diagnosis Outlook

All types of dementia are progressive and life-limiting. However, some types of dementia lead to a shorter lifespan than others. The average life expectancy of Alzheimer’s is eight to 10 years, though it could be shorter or even up to 20 years. Lewy body dementia life expectancy is five to seven years on average. People with vascular dementia typically live about five years after symptoms begin. It is important to note that many clinical trials and research studies are currently looking into new treatments and trying to identify ways to diagnose dementia earlier. Hopefully, scientists will discover new treatment options that can lessen symptoms, extend lifespans and perhaps one day find a cure. There are also resources like the Alzheimer’s Association and Dementia Society of America that can help you find support.

For Loved Ones of People With Dementia

If your loved one has been diagnosed with a form of dementia, there is support out there for you. Check out sources like the ones listed above. You may also find it helpful to hear insights from others going through the same situation. Mighty contributor Robin Gail shared the strategies that worked for her when she began caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s:

  • Ask your relatives or others for assistance when you need it.
  • When someone does offer to help you, take it! Don’t try to be the hero and do it all yourself.
  • When your loved one reaches the point of needing professional help, don’t be too proud to ask.
  • If you find yourself at your wit’s end, walk away for a few minutes and calm yourself down.
  • Many times, you will need to step into their reality because it will likely be impossible for them to be in your reality.
  • Cherish your moments with your loved one. Tell them frequently you love them.
  • As often as possible, take time to do something special for yourself.
  • Try, as much as possible, to keep a sense of humor.
  • Please take your ill loved one’s feelings into consideration. They still have feelings, though they may not be able to express them.
  • Recognize what they are still able to do, and help them do it.
  • Keep in mind the fear that your loved one must feel. They are losing control, they likely feel isolated, they may be close to the end of their earthly life. Let them know they are valued, that their presence has brought meaning to life.

Getty photo by sudok1

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