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What Is the Difference Between Alzheimer's and Dementia?

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If someone were to ask you what to name a disorder that causes memory loss, what would come 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.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

Dementia is not a single disease but a collective term used to describe a wide range of symptoms, including cognitive decline, such as forgetfulness or difficulties with thinking, problem-solving, or language. Dementia symptoms are severe enough to interfere with daily life. Still, they can stem from various causes, including Alzheimer’s, vascular issues, or infections.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common 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.

Common Types of Dementia

  1. Alzheimer’s Disease: The most prevalent form, marked by memory loss, language difficulties, and impaired reasoning.
  2. Vascular Dementia: Caused by impaired blood flow to the brain, often due to a stroke or a series of mini-strokes, leading to cognitive decline.
  3. Lewy Body Dementia (LBD): Characterized by abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies, causing symptoms like hallucinations and motor difficulties like Parkinson’s disease.
  4. Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD): Affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain and is associated with changes in personality, behavior, and language.
  5. Parkinson’s Disease Dementia: A progression from Parkinson’s disease that affects movement and, later on, cognitive functions.

Less Common Types

  1. Mixed Dementia: A condition in which a person has more than one type of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, simultaneously.
  2. Progressive Supranuclear Palsy: A rare condition that impacts balance, movement, and eye coordination, later progressing to dementia symptoms.
  3. Corticobasal Degeneration: A rare form of dementia affecting motor skills, sometimes progressing to cognitive and behavioral symptoms.
  4. Limbic-predominant Age-related TDP-43 Encephalopathy (LATE): A newly identified form mimics Alzheimer’s symptoms but is caused by a different protein.
  5. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE): Linked to repeated brain injuries, such as those experienced by athletes in contact sports, and associated with mood changes and cognitive decline.
  6. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease: A rare, rapidly progressing form of dementia related to “mad cow disease.”
  7. Huntington’s Disease: An inherited condition that leads to abnormal movements and can progress to dementia.
  8. Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus: Caused by the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain, leading to walking difficulties, urinary incontinence, and cognitive decline.
  9. Posterior Cortical Atrophy: A rare form affecting visual perception, sometimes considered an atypical variant of Alzheimer’s disease.
  10. Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (Korsakoff Syndrome): Caused by long-term excessive drinking, leading to memory problems and other cognitive impairments.

Properly distinguishing Alzheimer’s from other forms of dementia is essential for treatment planning, setting family expectations, and the patient’s eligibility for clinical trials. Specific medications and management strategies are more effective for certain conditions and less so for others, making an accurate diagnosis critical for optimizing quality of life.

Symptoms and 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 normally. Depending on what type of dementia you have, this brain cell damage could be caused by several factors. For example, vascular dementia is caused by a stroke. Lewy body dementia is caused when protein deposits called Lewy bodies form in brain areas involved in thinking, memory, and motor control. However, 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 the early stages of dementia
  • Disorientation
  • Inability to perform complex tasks

Symptoms and 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. This is what leads to dementia. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease to start. Sometimes, it is hereditary or genetic (particularly the rare early-onset Alzheimer’s). However, experts say this does not account for most Alzheimer’s cases. Other factors like level of exercise, blood pressure, cholesterol, and loneliness can also increase 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, inability 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, a few different medications 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 in 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.
  • You will often 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 consider your ill loved one’s feelings. They still have feelings, though they may be unable to express them.
  • Recognize what they can still 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 and may be close to the end of their earthly life. Let them know they are valued and that their presence has brought meaning to life.

Getty photo by sudok1

Originally published: April 25, 2019
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