It’s not uncommon for the words “Alzheimer’s disease” and “dementia” to be used interchangeably. After all, they are both known for causing issues with memory, cognition and behavior. This makes it difficult for the patient, the family, and even some health care providers to understand what a dementia diagnosis truly means.
However, it’s important to understand that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not the same. Dementia is the term used to describe the overall symptoms that affect mental cognitive tasks such as memory and reasoning; it’s the umbrella term that Alzheimer’s can fall under. In other words, Alzheimer’s is simply one type of dementia.
When individuals are given a dementia diagnosis, it means they have significant memory problems and other cognitive difficulties that affect their daily lives. They may experience difficulties not only with their memory, but with language and communication, problem solving and judgment, and planning and organization.
However, dementia itself is not a disease, it’s a syndrome. There are several conditions that can cause dementia, including:
Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of as many as 50 to 70 percent of all dementia cases, making it the most prevalent form of dementia. It is a specific type of dementia caused when high levels of proteins inside and outside brain cells make it difficult for the cells to stay healthy and communicate correctly with each other. Ultimately, this leads to the death of nerve cells and the loss of brain tissue.
When an individual is diagnosed with dementia, they are diagnosed purely based on their symptoms. It may be unknown at the time what might be causing them. Also, it’s possible for a person to have more than one type of dementia at a time, which is known as mixed dementia. In fact, around 10 percent of people with dementia have more than one type, with the most common combination being Alzheimer’s disease with vascular dementia.
Think of dementia in terms of a headache. When you have a headache, there could be a variety of different conditions causing it: allergies, the flu, a cold, poor eyesight, etc. The same is true of dementia. While not a disease itself, it’s the clinical presentation of a group of symptoms.
On the other hand, when an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is given, the exact cause of the individual’s symptoms is understood. Additionally, some forms of dementia are reversible if treated early and properly, like dementias that are caused by nutritional issues or medications. However, Alzheimer’s disease is irreversible and progressive, meaning over time the symptoms will gradually worsen.
If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be displaying some of the common warning signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s important to talk to your doctor as soon as possible. While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, starting treatment early can help slow some of the symptoms and improve quality of life.