What Is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

 In Enrichment

Dealing with cognitive decline can be scary. Adding to the challenge are the facts that 1.) some of the language around dementia is easy to misunderstand. 2.) Things like discussing symptoms, establishing the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, and researching similar illnesses… these don’t always take place until you or a loved one is experiencing dementia and you’re stuck playing catchup.

Not to worry though! Whatever your current situation, we’ll help get you up to speed. Let’s take a look at what dementia is, what it isn’t, and some of the different forms it can take.

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Is there a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

The Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s

The term “dementia” is often used in place of “Alzheimer’s” and vice-versa, as though the two words have interchangeable meanings. This is not the case. Dementia is an umbrella term that covers any disease or symptom of cognitive decline. It’s also important to note that dementia is a general term. It is not a diagnosis. So, even if someone is clearly experiencing difficulty with memory and/or other relevant symptoms, they cannot be diagnosed with dementia. Should a doctor determine a patient is suffering from a cognitive illness, an assessment and determination about the type of dementia will follow.

Alzheimer’s is just one specific manifestation of dementia. It’s a potential (and as we’ll see, likely) diagnosis, but there are many other types of dementia that can be responsible for symptoms.

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The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s really comes down to specificity. Alzheimer’s is one form of dementia, but there are many others. 

Illnesses That Fall Under the “Dementia” Umbrella

Doctors have identified around 85 different illnesses they consider to be dementia. A helpful WebMD article explains what patients and family can expect with several different types of dementia. Here’s a short breakdown of that article with a few of the key points about each type (please consult the article for more details):

Alzheimer’s

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty making plans
  • Symptoms progress over many years
  • “Experts think between 60% to 80% of people with dementia have this disease.”

Vascular Dementia

  • Poor judgement
  • Trouble with plans and decisions
  • Most often the result of a stroke
  • Symptoms vary

Dementia With Lewy Bodies

  • Memory trouble
  • Difficulty paying attention
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Occurs when a certain protein forms in the cerebral cortex

Parkinson’s Disease Dementia

  • Develops in 50-80% of folks with Parkinson’s Disease
  • Symptoms come on “about 10 years after a person first gets Parkinson’s.”
  • Similar to dementia with Lewy Bodies

Mixed Dementia

  • This type is defined by a dementia comorbidity (or when two different types of dementia exist together)
  • The most common version of this is Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia

Frontotemporal Dementia

  • Changes to personality and behavior
  • Trouble finding the “right word” for things
  • Movement trouble (shakiness, spasms, balance issues)

Huntington’s Disease

  • Difficulties with thought and reasoning
  • Memory struggles
  • Huntington’s Disease is a hereditary disease
  •  Symptoms generally appear between ages 30 and 50

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

  • Problems with memory and concentration
  • Mood swings and confusion
  • Onset is sudden with rapid symptom progression
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is rare

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

  • Difficulty walking
  • Trouble concentrating and thinking
  • Changes to behavior/personality
  • This is the result of a fluid buildup in the brain
  • “Some symptoms can be treated by draining the extra fluid from the brain into the abdomen through a long, thin tube, called a shunt.”

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

  • Memory issues are the primary symptom of Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
  • Problem-solving and thinking are typically fine
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome occurs when there is a major deficiency in thiamine or vitamin B-1
  • Usually due to long-term and heavy alcohol use

What is Sundowner’s Syndrome?

Sundowner’s syndrome is another symptom of dementia. As Mayo Clinic puts it, “Sundowning isn’t a disease, but a group of symptoms that occur at a specific time of the day that may affect people with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Sundowning refers to a period of the day where those living with dementia are at their most confused. This period typically corresponds with an increase in irregular behaviors and symptoms. When it comes to sundowner’s syndrome, not everyone with dementia will experience it. And those who do may not experience it in the same ways.
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Questions?

Hopefully this article has helped clear up the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s along with some of the other questions around the subject. Should you have any further questions at all about dementia, dealing with symptoms, or finding a home with the right level of care, please don’t hesitate to reach out.