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?
Quick Quiz for Diagnosing Dementia
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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
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Dementia vs. Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's by Age
Percentage of People with Alzheimers
95 and above
Alzheimer's Resources which Helped Our Family
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.
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.
- Poor Nutrition or dehydration.
- Renal Failure
- Thyroid Problems
- Brain Tumor
- Brain trauma
- Hearing loss
- 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
Excellent for Dementia Caregivers
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
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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