Dementia vs Alzheimer’s: what’s the difference?
Forgetfulness is a normal part of the ageing process. We all experience it to some degree or another and, thankfully, it’s usually nothing to worry about. But sometimes, memory lapses are a sign of something more serious – like Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia of another kind – especially when they are more persistent and combined with other symptoms like confusion, mood swings, behavioral changes and irritability.
In this article, we take a look at dementia vs Alzheimer’s, explain the difference between the two, and outline the symptoms and signs you should be aware of.
What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?
First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to a number of brain-related medical conditions, which result in diminished cognitive skills. All forms of dementia impact memory, decision-making and language skills, though they each progress at different rates. They also have some distinct symptoms, so it seems there’s a difference between dementia vs Alzheimer’s.
Here are some of the most common types of dementia:
Alzheimer’s disease is by far the most common and well-known form of dementia. It’s a terminal disease that gets progressively worse over time. Beginning with memory loss, it slowly leads to a complete inability to communicate or function.
The disease effectively disrupts how the brain’s nerve cells communicate by forming plaques which change how neurotransmitters work. It also begins to destroy brain tissue, especially in the hippocampus, which controls the working memory, and the parts of the brain responsible for planning and reasoning. As the plaques spread, the brain will begin to shrink and cease to function efficiently.
Most people are diagnosed after the age of 65, though a significant proportion is affected by Alzheimer’s at a younger age—this is called early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Generally, people live for up to eight years with the disease, though some people do live for longer on occasion.
Huntington’s disease is an incurable form of dementia that causes nerve cells to break down in the brain. It affects younger people (from around the age of 30) and progresses slowly over a number of years. People with Huntington’s find they suffer from slurred speech, memory loss, poor judgement, mood swings, depression, among other symptoms.
Parkinson’s disease is usually associated with tremors, slurred speech, posture changes and stiffness. However, as it progresses, it can also lead to dementia – causing clouded thoughts, mood swings and depression. Like Alzheimer’s, most people who are diagnosed with Parkinson’s are older, but younger people can get early-onset Parkinson’s.
What is it like to have Alzheimer’s Disease?
Whether or not there is a difference between dementia vs Alzheimer’s, when someone you care about is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, there are a number of stages they will go through:
Pre-symptomatic and very early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease
In the very beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, there will be no outward symptoms. Unless a doctor performs a brain scan for another reason, it won’t be detected. As the disease progresses in the early stages, a person will probably experience mild symptoms, like forgetting words or mixing them up. If you are concerned, remember that this can be caused by tiredness, stress or the normal effects of ageing.
While it’s probably not anything to worry about, it’s advisable to seek medical advice if symptoms are persistent. Not only will you get away with the idea that there is a difference between dementia versus Alzheimer’s, but the sooner a condition like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia are diagnosed, the better.
At this point, Alzheimer’s becomes more noticeable to both the person who has the disease and their family. Symptoms often come down to problems reasoning, short term memory loss, difficulty in making plans, repetition of stories and questions, etc. People often start to worry about their health at this stage and visit the doctor. Still, these symptoms can also be put down to stress, tiredness and normal ageing processes.
Mid-stage decline of Alzheimer’s disease
Symptoms become much harder to ignore as the person goes into a moderate decline. Patients will tend to forget the day of the week or month, have trouble following simple instructions or making easy decisions. He or she may also forget things about themselves or the people they know.
Late-stage decline of Alzheimer’s disease
As a person enters the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, they will experience serious confusion. They may forget who friends or family members are, lose track of time, struggle to dress themselves and maintain personal hygiene. They will also often forget the events of the day or where they are and what they are doing.
For family members, this can be a very upsetting time. But it’s important to stay positive for the patient and talk to them to let them know you are with them. People in the later stages know you are there and can still often remember stories from many years ago, which can be a way of encouraging them to engage in conversation.
In the final stages of Alzheimer’s, the patient will very often be unable to communicate, move independently, eat or drink. Even when they are awake, they’ll often be unaware of what is going on around them. They will be entirely reliant on their carers.
How is Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosed?
If a family doctor suspects a person has Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, they will refer them to a neurologist who will perform some tests. This professional will discuss whether or not there is an emerging disease, as well as explain why people do not know how to differentiate between dementia concept vs Alzheimer’s.
The neurologist will potentially ask about changes in behavior and personality. They may also offer memory or cognitive tests, ask about the person’s general health and well being. Moreover, they’ll check to see how the person is coping in general. To complete a diagnosis and rule out other conditions, the doctor will perhaps send the patient for a brain scan or more in-depth memory testing.
Alzheimer or other dementia disease: you’re not alone
If you or a family member is facing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, it’s important to recognize that you are not alone and help is at hand. You can always talk to your family doctor and reach out to local dementia associations. They will help you find the support you need, offer invaluable advice, and hold your hand through the process.
If you are worried about dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in particular, there are a number of charitable organizations that can offer you support.
- The UK-based Alzheimer’s Society supports people with the disease and their families.
- The US-based Alzheimer’s Association also offer support to those battling dementia.