Alzheimer’s and dementia are associated terms, but they’re not synonyms and don’t mean the same neurological condition. People often use the terms to refer to the same progressive brain disorder, but dementia is a general term, while Alzheimer’s refers to a specific brain disease and a type of dementia.
A good metaphor to distinguish the two is a family tree. Dementia is the parents, while Alzheimer’s is the child. Parents can have several children, and in a similar nature, dementia has different types besides Alzheimer’s.
Learning what makes Alzheimer’s different from dementia is essential because it’s not only Alzheimer’s disease that causes dementia symptoms—there are many others, like vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, etc., so it’s incorrect to refer to other dementia types as Alzheimer’s, as well. Let’s learn what differs Alzheimer’s from dementia.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Causes
Specific vs. Varying Cause
Dementia consists of wide-ranging brain diseases that impact a person’s daily life and can be caused by multiple factors based on the type. Here’s a brief explanation of the difference in causes.
Vascular dementia, the second most prevalent type after Alzheimer’s, is caused by a blocked artery in the brain resulting from a stroke attack. The blocked artery disrupts and reduces the blood flow to the brain, transforming into dementia.
On the other hand, Alzheimer’s is caused by ‘plaques and tangles’ or neurotoxic proteins that abnormally build up around the brain, killing the nerve cells. Now experts suggest many factors that cause the toxins to accumulate, such as chronic inflammation, which affects the brain’s efficiency in clearing away waste and toxins during sleep, and decreased blood circulation to the brain, which is associated with cardiovascular diseases.
Key Takeaway: Alzheimer’s is caused by neurotoxic proteins, but dementia has various causes determined by its unique type. You can’t instantly assume that if a loved one experiences memory loss, it’s directly related to Alzheimer’s because it may not be the case.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Symptoms
Reversible vs. Irreversible Symptoms
Dementia symptoms are grouped into reversible and irreversible, so it’s not entirely incurable. In some cases, proper treatment can resolve problems with memory loss, vision and hearing, hallucinations, etc. Some examples are sleep disorders, thyroid disorders, and Vitamin B12 deficiency.
Alzheimer’s is an irreversible form of dementia, so it’s incurable. There are three categories of irreversible dementia: mild, moderate, and severe. They are also classified into stages 1 to 7, with stages 1 to 3 known as the predementia period because of mild or almost nonexistent symptoms, and 4 to 7, known as the dementia period.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s have several shared symptoms, but some forms of dementia have specific symptoms that don’t manifest or are not prevalent in Alzheimer’s. Another difference is some symptoms may appear earlier in other dementia but manifest later in Alzheimer’s.
For instance, mild memory loss is a typical early Alzheimer’s symptom, but the same cognitive sign isn’t always apparent in early-stage Lewy body dementia (LBD). In fact, LBD first manifests movement symptoms, like muscle stiffness and slow movement, which are likewise not common at Alzheimer’s onset
Symptom Progression, Comorbidities, Cause of Fatality, and Life Expectancy
Each type of dementia progresses uniquely for each person, as this depends majorly on lifestyle and comorbidities. Also, rarely does dementia exist alone—it usually coexists with other health conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases for vascular dementia and Alzheimer's, and sleep disorders and parkinsonism in Lewy body dementia.
As such, this changes the progression of the disease and life expectancy for the patients. People living with Alzheimer’s may live longer, sometimes up to 20 years, with pneumonia as the most common cause of death.
Meanwhile, for other dementia types, let’s say vascular dementia—life expectancy is shorter at only around five years, with stroke or heart attack as the cause of death.
Key Takeaway: Alzheimer’s and dementia have many shared symptoms, such as memory loss, personality and behavioral changes, hallucinations, problems with language, social isolation, etc. In most cases, the difference lies in the timing of the appearance of symptoms and the disease progression.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: Treatment Methods
Curable vs. Treatable
In a similar fashion, treatment methods for dementia differ from Alzheimer’s because of the cause and whether symptoms are reversible or not.
Reversible dementia symptoms manifesting in thyroid problems, nutritional deficiencies, and those caused by mental health disorders can be cured with appropriate treatment. Symptoms go away after resolving the underlying cause.
Alzheimer’s disease and irreversible dementia don’t have any cure, but modern treatment methods can help delay symptom progression and prolong the patient’s cognitive functions. Symptoms don’t disappear with treatment, but therapy, medications, and other treatment options help manage the disease.
Key Takeaway: With the right treatment approach for reversible types, doctors can restore the patient’s health to its natural state and eliminate dementia symptoms. But with Alzheimer’s and other irreversible dementia, treatment options can only alleviate the symptoms and delay the advancement of the disease.
There’s also the difference in the cause of fatality. While most Alzheimer’s patients die of pneumonia, in some types of dementia, such as vascular dementia, coexisting health factors like stroke and heart attack are what’s more fatal.
How Understanding the Differences can Help Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients
Since the type of dementia affects available treatment options, understanding the differences can help family caregivers provide better care for their loved ones.
Family caregivers can also pursue the appropriate caregiving training and education based on the type of dementia their loved one is diagnosed with, whether it’s Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, or another type. It ensures that they only get hold of relevant resources applicable to their family’s situation.
Knowing the differences is the first step to becoming better carers. Having the right knowledge means family members can effectively get involved with their loved one’s care.
Our article What Are 10 Warning Signs Of Alzheimer’s? will give more information on the early indications of Alzheimer’s, including how it’s diagnosed.
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