What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, what’s the difference? Dealing with a diagnosis can be scary at first, but when you’re faced with it, there are some distinct differences to be aware of. Firstly, dementia is not a disease. It’s an umbrella term for the symptoms and changes to the brain, with Alzheimer’s as a sub-type.  irreversible degeneration (process of decline) of the brain with memory loss and failing cognitive function. 

When Alzheimer’s disease or dementia form part of a diagnosis, there is understandably, a sense of uncertainty. Most people see it as an inevitable breakdown of their independence and yet, each sub-type of dementia can be treated differently with a wide range of treatment options. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease however, research is ongoing with improvements and developments all the time.

What is Alzheimer’s?

1a. What it does

Alzheimer’s is just one type of condition that fits into the dementia classification. It is certainly the most common. When Alzheimer’s is present, a previously healthy brain with billions of neurons (brain cells), starts to be affected as a result of the disease. The disease disrupts the electrical and chemical signals and some neurons lose their connection to others. Some will be damaged but not repaired, and others stop functioning altogether.  Eventually, communication and even, metabolism is affected. Alzheimer’s affects the vital parts of the brain relating to memory including the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. As the disease progress, parts of the cerebral cortex are also affected (where most thought processing goes on). 

Most commonly it affects those over the age of 65 but sometimes younger individuals will experience their first symptoms. When this occurs it is know as younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. 

The characteristics of this disease are abnormalities in the brain itself and these include amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. If you can imagine a pair of old iPhone headphones at the back of an office drawer, tangled beyond undoing, perhaps holding onto bits of blue tack and salotape. Amyloid plaques (blu-tack/salotape) are strange and abnormal clumps of protein, while the twisted filaments of tau protein (headphone wires) create neurofibrillary tangles. Basically, this restricts communication between the neurons where eventually, the cells die. There are many potential causes of Alzheimer’s some of which include stress and genetics. 

1b. Early signs and symptoms

Being forgetful doesn’t necessarily mean you have Alzheimer’s. However, any regular spots of memory loss should be investigated and monitored, especially if it worsens or, starts to become the norm. For example, if items are constantly misplaced or lost. You may find yourself, or a loved one, struggle to retain new information which is another indicator of a potential issue. Changes to behaviour or emotions also occur, which may be accompanied with anger, aggression, or suspicion of others.  During latter stages of the disease, speech starts to become slow and muddled.  

As the disease advances it can cause: 

  • disorientation
  • confusion about events, time and place 
  • walking unaided 
  • swallowing can be difficult

There comes a point with each diagnosis where professional care is needed. Each individual circumstance and diagnosis is different. Some may be able to carry on at home with assistance, where others may need to move to a care home where round-the-clock support is available.

What is Dementia?

2a. What it does

Although the symptoms appear similar, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not the same. Dementia is not a disease. It is an umbrella term to describe the symptoms that affect communicative abilities, memory and performance on a daily basis. Because both terms are regularly used, it is easy to mix the two together. The symptoms of dementia are interconnected to Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease although it is worth noting that the conditions do not progress the same way.

Dementia is a syndrome which means there is not a definitive diagnosis. So, finding the actual cause and the correct diagnosis is incredibly important. Dementia impacts the individual’s ability to live an independent lifestyle, which often places the responsibility onto others within the family. As with Alzehimer’s, as the symptoms progress, extra caregiving or a move to a care home is needed.

More often than not dementia affects those over the age of 65 but, sometimes it is seen in younger people, though this is less common. This is termed young onset dementia. As the nerve cells of the brain become damaged, the necessary electrical and chemical processes are disrupted, which affects normal thought processes and decision-making abilities. 

Dementia is diagnosed when two or more cognitive functions are negatively affected. This may include:

  • language skills
  • attention 
  • comprehending information
  • judgement
  • ability to remember 
  • spatial skills.

2b. Signs and symptoms

Symptoms indicative of dementia include losing track of time, disorientation and confusion. Memory is also affected and gradually, it may become more difficult to put a name to a face with the same questions being asked.  As the underlying issues continue, the individual stops looking after themselves in the same way. 

Other types of dementia include:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Lewy body disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia

Agitation, delusions or hallucinations may also occur. The progressive disease affects an individuals control and ability to do daily tasks. While the underlying causes should always be sought it is important to remember that care and additional assistance are readily available for those who need it. 

While the symptoms between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are similar, some types of dementia may cause symptoms to pop up at different stages of the condition. There’s no straight line of symptoms to follow. Depending on the type of dementia there may be additional symptoms, so it’s important to educate yourself on the type you are dealing with to provide (or seek out) the best dementia care possible. 

The outlook for those individuals with dementia is very much connected to the actual cause although as yet, there is no cure available for Alzheimer sufferers. Lifespan and prognosis will always vary from individual to individual. But new research is constant and there is always hope of new information and treatment. Knowing the signs and symptoms is key as a correct, early diagnosis is one of best ways to ensure you, or your loved one, receive the best care possible with the highest quality of life.