Lutheran Crossings Blog

Distinguishing Alzheimer’s from Dementia

Many people wonder about the relationship between Alzheimer’s and dementia. Are they the same thing? Are they different diseases? In this post, we will clarify the relationship between Alzheimer’s and dementia.

To do this, let’s first look at dementia.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is the term for a group of conditions that affect the brain in the areas of memory, reasoning and communication. Dementia gradually damages or destroys nerve cells in the brain. Eventually, areas of the brain begin to shrink, generally starting in the part of the brain that controls memory, personality and reasoning.

There are more than 100 types of dementia. The most common types include:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease slowly destroys brain cells and brain cell connections which in turn causes memory and other important cognitive functions to deteriorate
  • Lewy Body Dementia, also called dementia with Lewy Bodies, is related to Alzheimer’s and is the second most common type of progressive dementia
  • Vascular Dementia, often caused by a series of mini-strokes (TIAs) and accounts for up to 20% of dementia cases, initially causes difficulty with judgment and reasoning. As the condition progresses, memory is affected.
  • Mixed Dementia occurs when a person simultaneously experiences more than one type of dementia, usually consisting of Alzheimer’s and another dementia. Autopsies have shown this to be true in approximately 10% of dementia cases.
  • Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is the stage between the normal cognitive decline of old age and the more widespread cognitive deterioration of dementia
  • Frontotemporal Dementia is an umbrella term for a distinct group of disorders that affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. These areas of the brain are associated with behavior, personality and language.
  • Although commonly a motor disorder, Huntington’s Disease can cause cognitive deterioration that progresses into dementia
  • Developing approximately ten years from the onset of Parkinson’s, Parkinson’s Disease Dementia causes a decline in the areas of memory, judgment and concentration
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) is a rare brain disorder causing a type of dementia that unusually causes quick deterioration of the brain
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, caused by a severe thiamine deficiency often related to alcohol misuse, is a brain disorder involving two separate phases – Wernicke encephalopathy followed by Korsakoff psychosis
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus develops when excess fluid accumulates in the brain. It’s relatively rare with symptoms that include dementia, difficulty walking and urinary incontinence.

Each type of dementia has different symptoms and different rates of progression. Additionally, although treatments may be similar, each dementia will have its own individualized treatment approach.

Years ago, dementia was often referred to as senility and was thought to be a normal part of the aging process. Although some forgetfulness, often referred to as “senior moments,” is a normal part of getting older, the profound memory loss associated with dementia is not something everyone will experience as they get older.

As people live longer, however, more and more are developing dementia. Beginning at the age of 65, the incidence of dementia doubles with every five years of age. By the time a person reaches 85 years of age, up to half of them may have some form of dementia.

Symptoms of Dementia

Symptoms will differ depending on the cause of the dementia, the stage of the disease and which parts of the brain are affected. The most common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss, including difficulties with familiar tasks and directions
  • Difficulty with organization and planning, judgment and concentration
  • Language difficulties, such as trouble understanding what is being said or difficulty getting the words out
  • Changes in personality and behaviors

Stages of Dementia

With dementia, nerve cells in the brain are gradually destroyed and connections between cells are destroyed causing the brain to shrink. The process happens over a period of time in three stages, each lasting from months to years.

During the early stage, a person may become forgetful or confused. They may start to exhibit behavior or personality changes. Overall, they may still be able to function without assistance.

In the middle stages of the disease, the person with dementia has increasing needs of assistance with activities of daily living. They may begin to experience difficulties recognizing family and friends, may begin to wander and become lost in familiar surroundings and may become moody or restless. They often experience agitation, frustration and bouts of anger.

Late-stage dementia will generally cause severe problems and help will be required in almost all aspects of life.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

When people talk or think about dementia, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is often the first thing that comes to mind. This shouldn’t be surprising since it is the most common form of dementia. And although 60-80% of dementia cases are caused by AD, with more than 100 dementia causes, Alzheimer’s is not a given.

For persons age 65 and older, Alzheimer’s disease is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, but in the top ten causes of death, it’s the only one that has no means of prevention, no means of slowing its progression and no cure.

In the early stage of AD, the most prominent symptom is memory loss, problems finding words and getting lost. They may repeat things, begin to have problems with organization and paying bills, forget to take medications and have problems learning new things.

In the middle stages, they begin to experience severe problems with short-term memory. They may also begin to need assistance with personal care and hygiene.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, 24-hour supervision is required for personal safety and to provide assistance with the most basic of needs. They experience problems with wandering and getting lost, are not able to recognize common dangers, often experience significant changes in sleeping habits (some having trouble sleeping at all) and eventually becomes unable to do basic things such as walking or swallowing. Memory problems continue to deteriorate to the point that they have very little memory at all, short-term or long-term.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

In short, then, dementia is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that progressively damage and destroy nerve cells in the brain. Alzheimer’s is one of those conditions, albeit, the most prevalent.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, we at Lutheran Crossings understand. Our intimate memory care community is here to offer a safe and supportive environment for anyone dealing with Alzheimer’s and any other dementia-related illness. If you have any questions, or if we can help in any way, please contact us today.