The difference between dementia and Alzheimer's is often confused - but it is important.
Generally, forgetfulness, difficulty remembering new information, and mood changes all typify both conditions - so it’s easy to think they are one in the same condition.
But while the symptoms can be similar, dementia and Alzheimer’s are quite different, one being a disease, and one a syndrome.
In this article, we will explore the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Here’s a summary of what we will cover:
- Alzheimer’s is a specific disease in which physical damage is done to brain cells
- Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms related to how the brain operates
- Alzheimer’s and dementia share a lot of the same symptoms
- There are treatments and medications available to manage the symptoms of dementia
What is dementia?
Commonly, dementia is thought of as a disease. However, it is not a disease in and of itself.
Instead, it is a collection of symptoms, usually related to memory loss and other reasoning skills.
Because these symptoms can have different causes, this is called a ‘syndrome’ rather than a disease.
Dementia can also affect language and communication abilities and eventually lead to confusion and character changes.
How is dementia diagnosed?
In order to be diagnosed with dementia, a decline in skills associated with brain function must have occurred.
This decline might be in areas such as memory, speech, and reasoning.
Dementia is diagnosed when these symptoms have grown to a point where daily life is affected.
It is usually a progressive condition, which means it will continue to get worse as time goes on.
Many different conditions can cause brain function impairment, from alcohol misuse to protein buildup in the brain.
There are growing links to poor diet and lack of exercise contributing to brain function damage.
What causes the damage?
In many cases, the causes of the damage are unknown. It could even be associated with a brain injury many years prior to the diagnosis of dementia.
There are many types of dementia, though most have similar symptoms. The exact symptoms depend on the type of dementia being experienced.
This is why there is a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Dementia is most common in people over the age of 65. There’s more here on dementia care.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, however, it is a diagnosable disease whereas dementia is not.
This is why there is a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease follows a predictable pattern as it progresses.
It is important to note that the rate of the progression of the disease is not predictable. The speed of progression can vary from person to person.
It is the most common type of dementia, being the cause of 60-80% of cases.
Where does Alzheimer’s manifest?
Alzheimer’s usually manifests first in the part of the brain most concerned with learning.
This means that it is difficult to commit new information to memory. One of the first symptoms is often forgetting things like what happened yesterday, or what day of the week it is.
Solving problems and making decisions also may become problematic early in the disease. Finding the right words can also be tricky.
The parts of the brain associated with reasoning and language are often affected.
As Alzheimer’s disease is degenerative, the disease will advance through the brain, and symptoms will increase.
Eventually, confusion, mood and behaviour changes and general disorientation become more common.
The brain and how it works
- A fully formed brain contains around 100 billion nerve cells, each one with branches called synapses leading off from it.
- Signals travel between cells, hopping between these ‘branches’.
- These signals prompt our every move, thought and word spoken.
How does Alzheimer's damage the brain?
Alzheimer’s disease originates from damage to the nerve cells within the brain.
Between these cells, abnormal proteins collect. The proteins can twist up in the synapses, blocking the signals that usually travel between them.
Because these proteins interfere with how the cells work, eventually this leads to cell death.
Tiny electrical currents move through each brain cell, which form the basis of our thoughts and memories.
When the current gets to where the ‘branches’ of two cells meet, they release tiny bursts of neurotransmitter chemicals.
In Alzheimer’s, there is a lack of these neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain, as well as an overabundance of proteins.
These chemicals are essential in transporting messages around the brain.
Without this chemical, thinking and reasoning is impaired, as the messages don’t get around so well.
The role of protein
The buildup of proteins (called plaques and tangles) and losing these chemicals contributes to changes within the brain. These changes affect how the brain operates, initially, in how it processes new information.
A brain with Alzheimer’s contains a lot fewer nerve cells, synapses and neurotransmitters than a healthy brain.
Eventually, brain cell death leads to the shrinkage of a brain affected by Alzheimer’s.
This understanding is key to recognising the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s.
This guide will tell you more on what are the early signs of dementia.
What other types of dementia are there?
Common symptoms characterise most types of dementia, such as forgetfulness, memory loss, character changes, and confusion.
Here are some of the other dementia types, and alternative causes of what is dementia:
Vascular dementia is related to blood flow to the brain.
Sometimes plaque builds up in arteries and interrupts blood flow to the brain, causing damage to the cells through oxygen and nutrient deprivation.
Heart disease and stroke are common risk factors in developing vascular dementia. Diabetes, smoking and high cholesterol all also raise the risk.
Vascular dementia often exists alongside Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia with Lewy bodies
Proteins deposited in nerve cells lead to disruption in the signals that cells use to communicate with each other.
These can build up to symptoms such as confusion and difficulties in thinking.
Hallucinations may also present themselves as a symptom, as well as issues with balance, leading to falls and unsteadiness.
Extreme sleepiness is also a symptom, which then leads to disturbed sleep patterns.
Parkinson’s disease dementia
Approximately 50-80% of people with Parkinson’s disease develop dementia a few years after diagnosis.
A brain with Parkinson’s dementia contains the ‘Lewy bodies’ protein deposits.
It may also contain plaque and tangles, as in Alzheimer’s disease.
This leads to symptoms quite similar to those experienced in Dementia with Lewy Bodies. These include hallucinations, difficulty controlling movement, and excessive sleepiness in the daytime.
- Loss of function at the front of the brain characterises this type of dementia.
- The front and sides of the brain are where the behaviour and language centres are located.
- Behavioural changes are often the first sign of frontotemporal dementia, rather than memory loss.
- Personality changes or changes in behaviour are common, e.g. becoming impulsive or selfish, perhaps even uncharacteristically rude or nasty.
- Changes in eating or hygiene patterns may present themselves. Difficulty using speech and language can also arise.
- Cognitive difficulties are also usual, e.g. struggling with organisation or planning tasks.
- This type of dementia can affect younger people from 45 onward.
Posterior cortical atrophy
This is another dementia not initially characterised by memory loss.
Often, reading becomes problematic or noticing moving objects correctly. The deterioration of the outer layer of the brain causes this.
This dementia can begin relatively early, between the ages of 50 – 65.
It is extremely difficult to diagnose thus is a relatively uncommon form of dementia.
While 5% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have posterior cortical atrophy, it could, in reality, be closer to 15%.
Lack of vitamin B1 is the principal cause of this type of dementia.
Alcohol misuse is the most common cause of this vitamin deficiency, thus, this type of dementia.
Short-term memory loss is again a symptom, as is confusion, and loss of muscle coordination.
As it sounds, mixed dementia is a combination of two or more types of dementia.
This is a rare disease caused by genetic factors.
It involves the degeneration of the brain cells, physical, cognitive, and psychiatric issues often present themselves as symptoms.
What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?
So, in summary, the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia.
Instead of being a collection of symptoms, it is an actual disease.
We can also see that some types of dementia have less predictable patterns in how they progress than Alzheimer’s does.
For example, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is not always a progressive dementia condition, meaning the symptoms will not definitely get worse with time.
Alzheimer’s will always progress as the disease continues to get worse.
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