The Differences Between Alzheimer's and Dementia

What are the differences between Alzheimer's disease and dementia? My aunt has dementia, but my family members do not know if she has Alzheimer's disease. This is very confusing to me. Can you help me understand?

Many people use the words "Alzheimer's disease" and "dementia" interchangeably, but they are not the same conditions. In fact, there is a form of dementia that is completely unrelated to Alzheimer's disease. Here is what you should know.

Dementia versus Alzheimer's

Dementia is a general term for a set of symptoms that includes memory loss, impaired communication skills, a decline in reasoning and changes in behavior. It is typically more common in people over the age of 65.

Alzheimer's disease is a specific illness that is the most common cause of dementia. Though many diseases can cause dementia, Alzheimer's - which affects 5.7 million Americans today - accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases, which is why you often hear the terms used interchangeably.

There are, however, many other conditions that can cause symptoms of dementia. Vascular dementia, which is the second most common cause, accounting for about 10% of dementia cases. Vascular dementia is caused by a stroke or poor blood flow to the brain.

Other degenerative disorders that can cause dementia include Lewy body dementia, Parkinson's disease, Frontotemporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), Huntington's disease and Korsakoff Syndrome. Some patients may also have more than one form of dementia, which is known as mixed dementia.

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, but the symptoms can vary depending on the cause. In the case of Alzheimer's disease, damage is caused by protein fragments or plaque that accumulates in the space between nerve cells and twisted tangles of another protein that build up inside cells.

In Alzheimer's disease, dementia gets progressively worse. It can progress to the point where patients cannot carry out daily activities, speak, respond to their environment, swallow or walk. Although some treatments may temporarily ease symptoms, the downward progression of the disease continues and there is no known cure.

Some forms of dementia, however, are reversible, which is why it's important to be evaluated by a physician early on. Vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, brain tumors, depression, excessive alcohol use, medication side effects and certain infectious diseases can cause reversible forms of dementia.

Another treatable form of dementia is a condition known as normal pressure hydrocephalus, which is caused by a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. This may be relieved by surgically implanting a shunt to drain off excess fluid. This type of dementia is often preceded or accompanied by difficulty walking and incontinence.

To learn more about different types of dementia, including the symptoms, risks, causes and treatments visit the Alzheimer's Association's website.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

Published July 6, 2018
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