Despite heightened awareness about Alzheimer’s and its possible causes and risk factors, confusion persists about how the disease differs from dementia, or whether it’s even the same condition. It’s easy to understand how these terms can be used interchangeably; they are related, of course, with similar symptoms and ages of onset. But the differences are stark and meaningful – here are some guidelines you might find helpful.
How is dementia different from Alzheimer’s disease?
First, dementia itself is not a disease, but rather an umbrella term used to refer to a host of symptoms associated with damage to brain cells. These symptoms most often include disorientation, memory loss, difficulty with word recall, and struggles with thinking and reasoning. Causes are varied, and can include reversible conditions such as malnutrition and urinary tract infections; progressive illnesses like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases; and even a one-time event, such as traumatic brain injury.
Alzheimer’s disease is a specific form of dementia, and in fact is its single biggest causal factor, estimated to trigger 60-80% of all cases. Alzheimer’s defining characteristics include deposits of protein fragments in the brain, known as plaques; the presence of twisted protein strands, or tangles; and other signs of nerve cell damage and deterioration. Dementia symptoms typically occur in Alzheimer’s mid-to-late stages, and are in the advanced stages accompanied by physical symptoms not typically present in other dementia scenarios – difficulty swallowing, for example; incontinence; or the inability to sit up or hold up one’s head.
How are dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
Proper identification of both dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms involves a sophisticated process of elimination via testing methods that aim to uncover and rule out underlying causes. Because there are so many conditions other than Alzheimer’s which cause dementia symptoms, doctors work to eliminate or identify those first, testing for diabetes, anemia, kidney and liver disease, thyroid abnormalities, vascular and respiratory issues, even vitamin deficiency. There is no one diagnostic test that’s used here; patients being evaluated can expect to have extensive blood work done, as well as a mental status check, neuropsychological evaluation, and often an MRI or CT scan.
Doctors look at results in the context of a detailed family history and analysis of day-to-day behavior, to narrow possible causal factors. In some cases, physicians will diagnose dementia without attributing it to a specific type (sometimes called mixed dementia, and may refer patients on to further testing with a specialist.
How are dementia and Alzheimer’s treated?
Non-Alzheimer’s dementia treatments are as varied as its causes, and success rates vary just as widely, depending on treatability. Dementia caused by reversible conditions like malnutrition or infection can be addressed more effectively than a progressive incurable disease like Parkinson’s – but there are treatments out there that can slow the symptoms. Alzheimer’s falls into the Parkinson’s category of progressive and incurable, but also has been known to respond to certain therapies that have successfully delayed patient decline.
Head to the Alzheimer’s Association website to learn more and stay up to date on the latest research and treatments.