Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia—What’s the Difference

Many people use Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and dementia interchangeably. However, the two diagnoses are in fact quite different. While Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia, they are not the same condition at all. Here’s what you need to know about these two ailments:

Dementia

Dementia is a syndrome; a group of disorders without a conclusive diagnosis. The symptoms that present as dementia make it hard to remember and reason. Dementia is an umbrella term that encompasses several different conditions, including AD.

Dementia develops when certain brain cells become damaged. Progressive diseases, such as AD, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, are one major cause. Other factors include certain infections, vascular diseases, depression or chronic drug use. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 50-70 percent of all dementia cases.

The specific set of brain cells that sustain damage depend on which condition is causing dementia.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease of the brain that slowly impairs memory and cognitive function. The exact cause is still unknown, although science has pinpointed several things that may contribute to it. In AD, abnormal proteins build up in the brain. They block the nerve signals between cells, causing the brain cells to die off. This damage to the brain happens years before any symptoms appear.

Doctors can’t currently diagnose AD with complete certainty; it can only be confirmed via autopsy. However, there are a range of tests, including MRI, that help doctors correctly diagnose it 90 percent of the time.

Symptoms

There definitely is a lot of overlap between dementia and AD when it comes to symptoms. Both conditions can cause declines in memory and communication. They also both involve reduced focus and poor judgment.

Alzheimer’s symptoms also include:

  • depression and/or apathy
  • disorientation
  • behavioral changes
  • delusions or hallucinations
  • in later stages—difficulty speaking, swallowing, or walking

Treatment

Treatment for both AD and dementia focus on the symptoms. The actual brain cell damage is not reversible and cannot be treated. Your loved one’s doctor will use a combination of medicines and therapies to address symptoms and slow down the disease’s progression.

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