Dementia vs. Alzheimer's: What is the Difference?

What is the difference between Alzheimer's and Dementia?

In common speaking, we often mix up the terms "dementia" and "Alzheimer's" We might even throw in that old term "senile." Are these terms the same? Not exactly:

  • Dementia means symptoms of memory loss which interfere with daily life.
  • Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia in people over 65.

More importantly, neither dementia nor Alzheimer's is a natural part of aging. If someone you love seems to be having trouble with remembering, you may want to consider finding out about tests for Alzheimer's.

For two very stressful years, my husband and I took care of his parents when they moved to our town. We were at a loss to understand their irratic behavior, paranoia and inability to complete daily tasks. While a doctor had mentioned they both had dementia, we thought that just meant they had ordinary forgetfulness from aging. Finally, another doctor used the word, "Alzheimers" and we started investigating what that meant.

When we understood that my in-laws both had Alzhei'mers, which was a cause of dementia, and that neither dementia or Alzheimer's were a normal part of aging, that enabled us research to understand what was happening to his parents, and how we could best respond for our peace of mind, and theirs.

What Happens in Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's patients lose their sense of time and memory.
Alzheimer's patients lose their sense of time and memory. | Source

Quick Quiz for Diagnosing Dementia

What is Dementia?

Dementia means memory loss. The word dementia is used to describe the symptoms of someone who has an inability to remember things which affects their daily life. Everyone has moments of forgetting someone's name, or where they put the car keys. Dementia is something different. People with dementia have memory loss which interferes with their daily life. Examples of a person exhibiting symptoms of dementia would be:

  • Being unable to finish all the steps of a familiar task like making a recipe, or writing a check.
  • Getting lost when driving a familiar route.
  • Having trouble remembering recent events or conversations.
  • Misplacing items frequently.
  • Inability to keep household organized the same as previously.
  • Frequently repeating questions, or asking for information to be repeated.
  • Being unable to learn and remember how to do something new, like operating a new appliance.
  • Frequently not remembering common words, or names for things.
  • Confusion and perhaps anger, fear and defensiveness when they don't remember.
  • Emotional changes such as paranoia and depression.
  • Hoarding behavior, especially about money and valuable items, but also sometimes hiding unusual things like kitchen utensils or tools.

Each person may show different signs of the memory loss of dementia. When trying to determine whether your loved one, friend, or neighbor has dementia, the key is to consider:

  • Does this person's ability to remember seem changed from the past?

If so, it is important to have that person examined by a doctor. Dementia is a symptom of a medical problem. It is not an ordinary part of aging. So anyone who exhibits signs of unusual memory loss should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Alzheimer's Disease is Progressive

Dementia is impaired memory which interferes with normal activities.  My in-laws, Michael and Nicole, both had significant dementia at the time of this photo.
Dementia is impaired memory which interferes with normal activities. My in-laws, Michael and Nicole, both had significant dementia at the time of this photo. | Source

Why are you interested in Alzheimer's vs. Dementia?

  • Think someone I know has dementia
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Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's by Age

Age
Percentage of People with Alzheimers
under 60
1%
65
2%
70
4 %
75
8%
80
16%
85
30%
90-94
40
95 and above
58%
From Contemporary Diagnosis and Management of Alzheimer's Dementia by David S. Geldmacher

What is Alzheimers?

While Dementia is the set of symptoms revealing memory loss, Alzheimer's is the main cause of those symptoms in people over 65. In fact, about 70% of all cases of dementia are eventually attributed to Alzheimer's, which is probably why the two terms are often used interchangeably.

So what is Alzheimer's? Alzheimer's is a brain disease which can only be verified authoritatively when a brain is autopsied and the characteristic plaque Only identified as a disease in 1906, Alzheimer's can only be definitively diagnosed in a brain autopsy, where tangles or plaque can be seen in the brain.

Although memory loss in older people has been documented since antiquity, it was only in 1906 that the condition was considered a disease after a German neurologist, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, published an account of the unusual pathological structures in the brain of a patient of his named Auguste who had exhibited progressive brain and memory dysfunction in her 50s.

Prognosis for Alzheimer s

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease which leads to ever increasing loss of mental functioning as well as personality changes and eventually death, although many people with Alzheimer's die from infections or other medical complications caused in part by poorer brain functioning. Most Alzheimer's patients live 6-8 years after being diagnosed in early state Alzheimer's.

Treatments for Alzheimer's

While there are no cures for Alzheimer's, some drugs work to help some patients slow the decline of the disease and retain mental abilities longer. Other drugs can be used to combat the depression and paranoia which often come with the damage to the brain. More importantly, caregivers who work to help the patient make the best use of the abilities that remain can help the Alzheimer patient live out a more comfortable and fulfilling life.

Alzheimer's Caregiving

Treating Alzheimer's early is helpful for care givers.
Treating Alzheimer's early is helpful for care givers. | Source

Some Dementia is Reversible

If you suspect someone of having dementia, it is very important to have them examined by a doctor. While 70% of cases of dementia in people over 65 are caused by Alzheimer's, there are some important causes of dementia that are reversible if they are recognized and treated. For example:

  • Dementia caused by a diabetic who has lost control of blood sugar levels.
  • Dementia caused by uncontrolled hypertension.
  • Alcohol or Drug abuse.
  • Infection
  • Poor Nutrition or dehydration.
  • Depression
  • Renal Failure
  • Thyroid Problems
  • Stroke
  • Brain Tumor
  • Brain trauma
  • Hearing loss
  • Anemia
  • Drug Reactions or Wrong Medications

Dementia is never a normal part of aging. It is always a sign that something is wrong, and since sometimes dementia can be treated and reversed or slowed down, it is very important to see a doctor to eliminate these possible causes.

Dementia through Hearing Loss

I experienced this recently with my own mother. For the past couple of years, I had been concerned about her memory. She often asked to have me repeat things I had already told her, or didn't seem to remember things that other people had said. Knowing she had previously had trouble with her hearing, my brother and I urged her to visit an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor. The result of her hearing test showed she had complete hearing loss in one ear and very significant loss in the other. I am grateful to now understand that what appeared to be not remembering was actually not hearing. While we are concerned and hoping her hearing is recovered, in the meantime we are able to modify our behavior by looking at her when we speak and asking her to repeat us to make sure she understood.

What Dementia Looks Like

Alzheimer's Affects Families

Coping with dementia involves the whole family.  Pictures can help retrieve memories.
Coping with dementia involves the whole family. Pictures can help retrieve memories. | Source

Prognosis and Treatment of Alzheimers

  • Prognosis: Alzheimer's is a progressive disease which leads to ever increasing loss of mental functioning as well as personality changes and eventually death, although many people with Alzheimer's die from infections or other medical complications caused in part by poorer brain functioning. Most Alzheimer's patients live 6-8 years after being diagnosed. There are specific stages of the disease: Early Alzheimer's, Intermediate Alzheimer's and Late Stage Alzheimer's.
  • Treatment: While there are no cures for Alzheimer's, some drugs work to help some patients slow the decline of the disease and retain mental abilities longer. Other drugs can be used to combat the depression and paranoia which often come with the damage to the brain. More importantly, caregivers who work to help the patient make the best use of the abilities that remain can help the Alzheimer patient live out a more comfortable and fulfilling life.

Wife Coping with Alzheimer's in Young Husband

Diagnosing Dementia

Along with doing a regular medical check-up, a doctor who suspects dementia may give a simple memory test like the one above which can reveal gaps in brain functioning which might not appear easily in a regular conversation. One thing I learned in reading about Alzheimer's is that social interaction ability is often one of the abilities which is retained the longest. What people with Alzheimer's lose first is what is called "executive function" or the ability to think about several things at once or draw conclusions.

Here is a sample screening quiz like the ones I heard my in-laws given by their doctor. I've created based on sample questions given by David Geldmacher in Contemporary Diagnosis and Management of Alzheimer's Dementia. Tests like this are easy to do as a quick screening device for dementia symptoms.

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Comments 18 comments

Raine Law Yuen profile image

Raine Law Yuen 15 months ago from Cape Town

Thanks for this great hub. It has helped to clarify the difference and I love your writing style. You simplify complex issues in a relateable manner.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

Thanks so much for this informative hub here. I have always wondered exactly what the difference is between the two. My sweet mother had dementia. She went on to be with the Lord this past Christmas.

Up and more and sharing

God bless you. In His Love, Faith Reaper


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much dinkan!


dinkan53 profile image

dinkan53 4 years ago from India

Clear and understandable, i like the way of presentation. One can easily distinguish dementia and alzheimers. Voted up and rated as an useful hub.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Wow Tonipet--that is a powerful reminder not to neglect the time we have now.


Tonipet profile image

Tonipet 4 years ago from The City of Generals

One hubber Kj-force, posted a poem hub about dementia which she entitled "Now that we have the time, the you I used to know is no longer there"... it's a very touching poem dedicated to a beloved who has dementia. Both alzheimer's and dementia could be very hard. Thanks for all the information.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks kissayer--I know that you are a nanny for little ones, and while I was caring for my in-laws I had 3 preschoolers in tow. The duties of caring for both ends of the age spectrum are similar, but it is harder to emotionally care for people who used to be different.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Seeker7, thank you so much for giving your own experiences. I have to say that I have a close-up picture of my mother-in-law that really would be useful for the Hub I'm writing now on Advanced Stage Alzheimers, but I just couldn't use it. It was too personal and graphic, especially since she was not that way until the very last week or so. Dementia of any kind is a very difficult for everyone. Even three years after my in-laws have passed away, I still think about them every day. I will certainly be thinking and praying for you as you care for your father.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

Excellent and very useful hub!

Having looked after many elderly people who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, you're right about death coming within a few years. Most of my elderly clients were about 3 or 4 years and many of them died with pneumonia. I think as well that in addition to the obvious mental changes that occurr, the physical changes in the person as the condition progresses is awful. When I looked at photographs of my clients a couple or so years before diagnosis and then looked at them while they had this terrible condition, it was hard to believe that they were the same person.

My Dad has Parkinson's Disease and I'm the main carer for him now. I cared for one gentleman a number of years ago who developed Parkinson's related dementia and that was awful for the guy and his family. With Dad there is no sign of this and hear's hoping he never does suffer from it.

A fabulous hub that will help professional carers and families understand more about dementia V's Alzheimers. Voted up + shared


kissayer profile image

kissayer 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

This is a fabulous hub! So many people don't even realise that there is a difference between Dementia and Alzheimers. Great info! Voted up!


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

There is a difference in the speed that we think at as we age. It is normal to take a little longer to think about things. I have known several well-known professors who were quite sharp in their 80s, but would sometimes take a bit longer to formulate what they wanted to say. Dementia is different. Dementia is a break down of mental processing which interferes with a person's ability to care for daily needs. Although dementia can be seen frequently in people 80 and over (as you can see in the chart), it is not a normal process of aging and indicates some type of medical condition causing the dementia. Sometimes nothing can be done to prevent that, but it is very important to make sure that a doctor has evaluated the person to see if there is anything which can be done.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

So glad this helped Barbara!


sharewhatuknow profile image

sharewhatuknow 4 years ago from Western Washington

I am kind of at a loss here. As a care provider, part time, for an 82 year old gentleman, I cannot see how dementia is not a part of aging. My late paternal grandfather was diagnosed with dementia in his 70's, my late step-grandfather in his early 70's, the person I care for, now in his early eighties, etc...I sincerely believe dementia is caused by aging.


Barbara Kay profile image

Barbara Kay 4 years ago from USA

This hub supplied a lot of good information and was interesting. Now I understand the differences between Alzheimers and Dementia. I always wondered.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much for adding the information about your mother. I have not included in this Hub the different types of Alzheimer's, nor the other non-reversible conditions which cause dementia. You are absolutely right that only medical help can help sort these out. I'm guessing many people who would search for this topic are just in the beginning of this journey. I'm sure your hubs would be helpful in giving people information.


breastpumpreviews profile image

breastpumpreviews 4 years ago from TX

Great article. My mom has a rare form of Alzheimer's called Picks disease. I wrote several hubs about her and about her journey with Picks disease. She was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's and dementia. Its definitely hard to tell the two apart without the help from trained doctors and neurologists.


VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 4 years ago from United States Author

Thanks so much kelleyward--I really appreciate your comment. It has taken a few years for me to even be able to go back to this subject to write about it, but I really would love to save someone the anguish and stress we went through in trying to understand what was happening with my in-laws.


kelleyward 4 years ago

Top notch hub! As an RN I understand that many people get confused about the differences between dementia and alzheimers. Your hub is a fantastic resource. Voted up, useful, awesome, and shared! Take care, Kelley

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    VirginiaLynne profile image

    Virginia Kearney (VirginiaLynne)1,250 Followers
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    VirginiaLynne was a caregiver to two relatives with Alzheimer's. She shares her extensive research to help people dealing with dementia.



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