The Subtle Distinction Between Dementia & Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease involves abnormal protein deposits in the brain, remapping and erasing portions.
Alzheimer’s disease involves abnormal protein deposits in the brain, which cause brain connections to be severed and cells to die. Ultimately, the brain shrinks.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often lumped together and used interchangeably to describe a variety of symptoms or behaviors exhibited by seniors. However, there is a subtle distinction that you should be aware of: Dementia is the overarching term for neurodegenerative diseases, and Alzheimer’s is just one type of dementia.

With that knowledge in mind, let’s take a closer look at the symptoms that point to Alzheimer’s and those that point to another form of dementia.

Basics of Dementia

Dementia, unlike Alzheimer’s, is a broad term that encompasses many more types of neurodegenerative diseases, including Lewy Body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal disorders, Huntington’s disease, and others. Seniors can be diagnosed with more than one form of dementia, known as mixed dementia.

These types of dementia are characterized by the damage they cause to specific areas of the brain. Generally, these diseases include the following symptoms:

  • Mood swings
  • Poor judgement or reasoning
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Memory loss
  • Involuntary movements, like shaking
  • Decline in performance of daily activities

Forms of dementia can go undetected for years, which makes diagnosis difficult in some cases. Most types of dementia, however, are progressive, meaning they get worse as an individual ages. Some forms of dementia do have treatments available, while others still can’t be treated or cured.

The cause of many forms of dementia are unknown; however, some causes can include vascular disease, stroke, depression, chronic drug use, and infections like HIV.

Basics of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, which is why it is so often used interchangeably with dementia. About 70% of dementia patients are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

But what is it?

Alzheimer’s disease involves abnormal protein deposits in the brain, which cause brain connections to be severed and cells to die. Ultimately, the brain shrinks.

While the cause of this disease is still unknown, there are certain factors and symptoms that doctor’s look for when making a diagnosis.

  • Age: Alzheimer’s is most common in older adults. So doctors will tend to check for other symptoms of the disease if your loved one is 60+.
  • Memory: Seniors with Alzheimer’s often exhibit a decline in cognitive function, which means their memory worsens. This memory loss isn’t just forgetting where you put the keys one day but is a pattern of repeated forgetfulness. Seniors with Alzheimer’s may forget how to perform common functions, like getting dressed, or how to get to certain places around town. Their short-term memory may start to decline. As the disease progresses, this memory loss gets more severe and an individual may forget who their spouse or children are.
  • Behavior: In addition to memory loss, seniors with Alzheimer’s exhibit behavioral changes because of their cognitive decline. They may not be able to make rational decisions. They may find it difficult to communicate verbally. They might become confused or disoriented more easily. Some seniors become angry, aggressive, and even violent as their behavior and disposition are completely changed by the disease.

While there are only some of the factors that characterize Alzheimer’s, a healthcare professional will be able to diagnose Alzheimer’s from the more general term dementia. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and it is a terminal illness.

Understanding the Differences

If a senior is diagnosed with dementia, they are essentially diagnosed with a variety of symptoms, like being diagnosed with a sore throat. The cause of the sore throat is yet unknown. Likewise, the cause of memory loss or cognitive decline is yet unknown.

As the symptoms progress, doctors may be able to identify the root cause of symptoms, identifying Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lewy Body, or another form of dementia. Once a proper diagnosis is made and the ultimate cause of the symptoms is known, then treatment can begin and loved ones can start receiving the care they need.

As a senior or a loving family member, it is important to educate yourself on the different types of dementia so that you can recognize symptoms to get professional help and a diagnosis as soon as possible.

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