Is it Alzheimer’s or Dementia? How to Tell the Difference
Many people think that Alzheimer’s and dementia are the same and use the terms interchangeably. However, there are distinctions between the two. It is important for effective treatment and management to know these differences. We’ll learn more about dementia, the types, causes, and how it differs from Alzheimer’s.
What is Dementia?
Many people assume Alzheimer’s is a broad term for all dementia. Alzheimer’s is actually a common form of dementia and falls under the dementia umbrella, not the other way around. More specifically, dementia is considered a syndrome, not a disease. Dementia is a decline in mental function with a loss of memory, cognitive functioning, problem-solving, remembering, reasoning, thinking, attention, and other issues.
Dementia is not a normal part of aging, and some types of dementia are very rare. People with the following factors may be at a higher risk of developing dementia:
- Trauma or head injuries
- Poor heart health
- Race and ethnicity
- Family history
- Certain health conditions
Early symptoms of dementia can be mild such as forgetfulness or losing track of time. Dementia can progress and lead to changes in behavior, depression, confusion, and even the loss of remembering faces of loved ones. Treatments for dementia can help manage symptoms. Currently, there is no cure for irreversible types of dementias.
What are the Types of Dementia
We often think there are only one or two kinds of dementia. However, medical professionals have identified up to 400 different types of dementia. Some have similar or overlapping symptoms, which can make a diagnosis difficult. In some cases, one person may have multiple types of dementia. If this happens, it is called mixed dementia. We’ll discuss a few types of dementia, from the more common to rare forms.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB) is a common form of dementia. Proteins called Lewy Bodies build up within the body and result in symptoms of reduced mobility, shuffling walk, and other signs, including cognitive changes and mental decline. It may be challenging to determine if a person has DLB or Parkinson’s disease because Lewy Bodies are present in those with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
Parkinson’s dementia develops in some but not all people with Parkinson’s disease. People diagnosed with Parkinson’s may develop dementia late in the disease. To complicate matters, dementia with Lewy Bodies and Parkinson’s dementia symptoms may overlap, but each will appear in a different order.
Vascular dementia is a very common type of dementia. This type of dementia is caused by reduced oxygen and blood flow to the brain cells. Blood vessels within the brain narrow and reduce oxygen and blood flow. Without blood flow and oxygen, brain cells die. Keeping blood pressure in check may help prevent vascular dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) affects everyone differently, and there are several types under the umbrella of FTD. Every kind of FTD can have unique signs and symptoms. A few types of FTD include:
- Picks Disease
- Primary Progressive Aphasia
- Semantic Dementia
- Behavioral Variant FTD
- Logopenic Variant
FTD is not a common type of dementia and can be hard to diagnose. It is a progressive form of dementia and affects behavior and speech.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a brain disorder that affects about one out of a million people yearly worldwide. Generally, people with CJD are diagnosed after the age of 60. CJD has similar symptoms to other forms of dementia. These include:
- Faulty memory
- Behavioral changes
- Lack of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty walking and balance
There are three types of CJD, sporadic, hereditary, and acquired. Each of these types may have overlapping symptoms alongside unique ones, a different prognosis and treatments may vary. One of the differences between CJD and other forms of dementia is the progressive nature of CJD. Many diagnosed with CJD die within a year, whereas other forms of dementia have a slower progression.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a form of dementia that affects the brain and spinal cord. There is fluid in the spinal cord called cerebrospinal fluid or CSF. When the flow of CSF to the brain’s ventricles is blocked, this will disrupt normal processes. Classic dementia symptoms with NPH include forgetfulness, fatigue, and difficulty walking.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia and is one of the most common forms. It is named after Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 discovered a strange new disease that affected the cerebral cortex.
It’s important to recognize that Alzheimer’s is an actual disease affecting the brain, whereas dementia refers to many brain disorders. Alzheimer’s is located within this group of disorders.
A second major difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that some forms of dementia can be reversed. These include dementia caused by a vitamin deficiency, drug interaction, or drug toxicity. Alzheimer’s is not a reversible disease and is considered degenerative and incurable.
Like many forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s worsens over time and affects a person’s language skills, thoughts, and memories. Often symptoms can overlap between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and adults over 65 are at a greater risk. However, younger people can also develop both Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Treating Alzheimer’s Disease vs. Other Types of Dementia
Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s or most forms of dementia, there are options and treatments to manage symptoms. Since there are many overlapping symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia, treatments may also intersect. Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia include medications that can help with:
- Memory loss issues
- Sleep problems
Of course, with so many forms of dementia, treatments may be specific to a particular type. For instance, a spinal tap is used for those with normal pressure hydrocephalus and not with any other forms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Learn More About Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Alzheimer’s and dementia have been with us for many years. And, every year, we learn more and find effective programs and treatments so individuals with any type of memory loss can live with dignity and purpose. There are additional ways to learn more on Alzheimer’s and dementia. Connect with LCS Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of current and future generations of seniors through initiatives that support Alzheimer’s research and care.
Talk with your doctor if you or a loved one are concerned with memory loss issues or other signs of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Receiving a diagnosis early can help you better understand your options and prepare for the future.