The Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia
“Though those with Alzheimer’s might forget us, we as a society must remember them.”
– Scott Kirschenbaum
In Australia, it is estimated that over half a million people are living with some form of Dementia and approximately 1.6 million people are involved in their care. Dementia is one of the most challenging and misunderstood conditions that represent a range of different diseases that can affect a person’s cognitive ability.
This article has been designed to help guide family members in better understanding their loved one’s dementia and detailing the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the most commonly diagnosed types of dementia.
1. What is Dementia?
2. What are the Symptoms of Dementia?
3. What Causes Dementia?
4. What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
5. How Does Alzheimer’s Disease Affect the Brain?
6. Can Alzheimer’s Disease be Cured?
7. What are the other Types of Dementia?
8. What is the Outlook for People with Dementia Compared to People with Alzheimer’s Disease?
What is Dementia?
Dementia is considered a syndrome and not a disease, which means that it comprises a group of symptoms that are not definitive of a diagnosis.
Dementia will affect some mental cognitive abilities including memory, logical thinking and reasoning to such an extent that it will interfere in with a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks.
It is not uncommon for people to experience symptoms of more than one type of dementia. This is known as mixed dementia and can only be confirmed through an autopsy.
Dementia can affect anyone at any age, however, the majority of dementia cases are seen in older people. Dementia is the fifth leading cause of death globally and cases are expected to triple over the next 30 years.
What are the Symptoms of Dementia?
Dementia is progressive and early symptoms can often be overlooked as they are often mild. Dementia often begins with simple episodes of forgetfulness. In the later stages, dementia can lead to confusion, depression and even aggressive behaviour.
- Occasional forgetfulness
- Losing track of time
- Losing your way in familiar environments
- Frequent forgetfulness
- Confusion and repetitive questioning
- Poor hygiene and decision making
- Dependent on others
- Trouble with identifying time
- Difficulty remembering familiar people & places
- Change in behaviour including depression & aggression
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia can occur at any age however most commonly occurs in the later years of life and is usually caused by damaged brain cells. Many degenerative diseases that damage a certain group of brain cells can cause dementia including Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease.
Other causes of dementia include:
- Infections, such as HIV
- Vascular diseases
- Chronic drug use
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease is often confused with dementia, however, the two conditions are different.
Dementia is an overarching term that is used to describe symptoms that can affect a person’s memory, ability to perform everyday activities, and other communication skills.
Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is the most commonly diagnosed type of dementia which, can cause memory loss, while also affecting language and thought over time as the disease progresses. Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for about 60% to 80% of all cases of dementia.
How Does Alzheimer’s Disease Affect the Brain?
Brain cells and brain cell connections break down and die in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
A key symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is an abnormal development of protein deposits in the brain called plaques and tangles. Plaques create dense clusters of proteins that block communication between neurons and Tangles twist together leading to the death of healthy brain cells.
In the advancing stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain will significantly shrink in size. These changes in the brain can occur for decades before any other symptoms come to life.
Can Alzheimer’s Disease be Cured?
Unfortunately, there are no cures for Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. Science has not yet identified any treatments that can slow or halt the progression of this Alzheimer’s Disease, and researchers also do not know how to prevent the early onset of the disorder.
Treatment focuses on creating a better quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s disease. Medications that can help manage symptoms of the disease. These symptoms include:
- Behavioural changes
- Memory loss
- Sleep changes
What are the Other Types of Dementia?
While Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent cause of dementia, many other potential risk factors can lead to another type of dementia.
Unlike Alzheimer’s Disease, Vascular Dementia can be caused by a blockage of blood flow leading to the brain and can result in a stroke or the buildup of plaque in an individual’s arteries.
Symptoms and changes can occur suddenly, and become progressive by starting mild and unnoticed. It is estimated that between 5% to 10% of people over the age of 65 have vascular dementia, and it has become the second most common type of dementia.
Vascular dementia is a type of dementia that can cause a decline in cognitive skills including:
Dementia With Lewy Bodies
Dementia with Lewy bodies is also a progressive disease however it’s caused by excessive protein deposits in nerve cells which ultimately disrupt electrical signals sent to the brain.
Common symptoms include changes in thinking, confusion, and changes in movement patterns.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
Parkinson’s disease dementia is experienced by 50% to 80% of people with Parkinson’s Disease with an average onset of about 10 years.
The decline in cognitive ability is progressive and will often develop a year after the diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.
Frontotemporal dementia is not just one condition. It is a combination of disorders that affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain resulting in a loss of brain function.
Frontotemporal dementia will affect a person’s personality, emotions, behaviour, and speech. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, behavioural changes are often the first symptoms to show up.
Posterior Cortical Atrophy
Posterior cortical atrophy is a progressive disease where the outer layer of the brain slowly deteriorates over time.
Symptoms can vary in each individual, but will often affect visual tasks such as reading or perceiving moving objects.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare infectious disease and can progressively cause dementia rapidly.
Symptoms will often start with muscle coordination, personality changes, and vision problems.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder that is caused by a lack of vitamin B1 and is often due to chronic alcoholism.
Symptoms may include double vision, confusion, drooping upper eyelids, and a loss of muscular coordination.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Normal pressure hydrocephalus is caused when there is a build-up of fluid in the brain and can affect a person’s cognition, movement, and bladder control.
While there is no certain cause for Normal pressure hydrocephalus it is implied that head injuries, infections, and bleeding in the brain can contribute to its development.
Huntington’s disease is a rare condition that is caused when the nerve cells in the brain begin to break down and is caused by a gene abnormality.
Early symptoms of Huntington’s disease can include mood changes, psychosis, and poor coordination.
Mixed Dementia cases occur when a person has more than one type of dementia. One of the most common combinations is vascular dementia with Alzheimer’s disease.
What is the Outlook for People with Dementia Compared to People with Alzheimer’s Disease?
The outlook for people with dementia depends on what is the root cause and what treatments are available to manage symptoms, and what therapy they may be using, for example music therapy. Parkinson’s Disease, for example, has treatment available to better manage the symptoms of dementia. Similarly, Vascular dementia can be slowed down, but will still shorten a person’s lifespan. Some types of dementia are reversible, but most types are irreversible and will cause progressive decline.
Alzheimer’s Disease is a terminal illness, without a cure, and a person’s lifespan can depend greatly. People over 65 live an average of 4 to 8 years after receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis but some people live as long as 20 years.
No matter the state of an individual’s ailments or abilities, everyone shares the need for a good quality of life.
Seeking a diagnosis early and starting treatment promptly can help people better understand and manage the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.