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Did you know that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are actually different? Many individuals mistakenly use these terms interchangeably, leading to confusion. Dementia encompasses symptoms that affect memory, daily tasks and cognitive abilities. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia.  

People must understand that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are different. Your diagnosis can impact the care approach, as well as symptom management. We aim to help you understand the difference between the two terms below to clear up any potential confusion. 

Alzheimer’s Disease – An Overview

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that occurs when you have radical brain changes due to damage to the cells. It causes dementia-like symptoms that gradually worsen. For people with Alzheimer’s, one of the earliest symptoms is having trouble remembering new information. This is because the disease attacks the area of your brain responsible for learning first. 

There is no cure, and as the disease gets worse, the symptoms get more severe. It’s common to feel disoriented and confused and have behavioral changes. Eventually, you can experience more severe symptoms, and speaking, swallowing, or walking may be challenging. The more common symptoms include: 

  • Concentration issues
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Impaired decision-making or judgment
  • Mood changes
  • Personality changes
  • Trouble remembering names, conversations, or events

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An elderly man sitting down on a couch

Dementia – An Overview

Dementia brings about a range of symptoms, such as difficulties in thinking, impaired memory, and challenges with complex tasks. Various types of dementia exist, each with its own set of causes. For instance, mixed dementia arises when multiple types of dementia occur due to changes in the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common dementia causes. 

It’s important to note that dementia isn’t a normal part of getting older. Brain cell damage, specifically concentrated in the areas that affect your ability to communicate and regulate your behavior and feelings, causes it. The more common symptoms include: 

  • Changes in behavior
  • Decreased attention and focus
  • Language changes
  • Memory decline
  • Poor judgment and reasoning skills
  • Thinking skill changes

Do you struggle with sleeping after your dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis? You may have a common sleep disorder, and we break them down here. 

Key Differences between Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Think of dementia as a broad umbrella term while Alzheimer’s falls under it. The cause, symptoms, disease progression, and treatment options can vary, and this is where you start to see the differences between the two. 

Symptom Differences 

While there are symptom overlaps between Alzheimer’s and dementia, particular distinctions exist between the conditions. For example, dementia can have a broad symptom range, depending on the cause. Difficulty completing complex tasks, mood changes, and confusion are common, and you may see behavioral or personality changes with conditions like frontotemporal dementia

With Alzheimer’s, the early stages usually bring about minor memory problems, worsening as the disease progresses. The later stages typically cause more severe impairment, like difficulty speaking, disorientation, and confusion. 

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Cause Variations

Several factors can cause dementia, including Lewy bodies (Lewy body dementia), vascular problems (vascular dementia), Alzheimer’s disease, or brain damage from trauma or a stroke

It’s thought that a significant cause of Alzheimer’s disease is an abnormal build-up of proteins around and in your brain cells. Plaques are common, and they have beta-amyloid proteins, while tangles have tau proteins. 

Disease Progression

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia types are progressive, which means that there is no cure, and symptoms will get worse over time. However, the progression pattern and rate can vary. Generally, Alzheimer’s disease has a very gradual onset and progression, starting with mild forgetfulness and ending with severe brain damage. 

How other forms of dementia progress, like frontotemporal or vascular dementia, are less predictable overall. For example, it’s common for vascular dementia to progress in a stepped pattern, so the symptoms will stabilize before suddenly worsening. 

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a old man doing physical therapy

Treating Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease

There are no cures for Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. Instead, medical professionals focus on symptom management that slows the disease progression. A few things to consider include the following: 

Diagnostic Methods

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s and dementia usually involves an in-depth medical assessment. This can include reviewing your medical history, undergoing neurological and physical exams, psychological and cognitive testing, and potentially brain imaging like an MRI or CT scan. Your doctor can order lab tests to rule out other potential symptom causes. Generally, diagnosing dementia is relatively straightforward, but you’ll need more specialized testing to see what specific type it is, including Alzheimer’s. 

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Common Treatment Options for Dementia

Your treatment plan will be unique, depending on the cause. The main goal is to help manage any symptoms and slow the disease’s progression. The treatment options for dementia may involve the following:

  • Using medications such as memantine or cholinesterase inhibitors
  • Engaging in training activities
  • Making lifestyle adjustments like adopting a healthy diet or incorporating exercise

In cases of dementia, addressing the root cause of the condition, like managing blood pressure for individuals with vascular dementia, can be a beneficial approach. 

Treatment Options for Alzheimer’s

With Alzheimer’s disease, treatment usually involves taking medications to help slow the disease progression and manage symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe memantine (NMDA antagonist), Rivastigmine, or Donepezil (cholinesterase inhibitors). Adding non-medicinal treatment options, like keeping a structured routine, engaging socially, and doing activities to stimulate your brain, is also essential. Treatment for more advanced stages usually involves a supporting and safe environment

Did you know it may be possible to predict how fast Alzheimer’s progresses? Your initial symptoms could be the key to unlocking this mystery.

Decoding Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Understanding that dementia and Alzheimer’s are two different things is critical for helping doctors and caregivers manage them more effectively. They are very similar, but having other causes, symptoms, and progression rates showcases the importance of tailoring the approach for diagnosing and managing them. Living with Alzheimer’s or dementia or being a caregiver for an affected person requires having a complete support system. 

Each person’s experience with Alzheimer’s or dementia is different, and they’ll get tailored treatment plans. Our knowledge of these conditions and the methods for managing them constantly evolves thanks to research and medical advancements. Ultimately, the objective is to enhance the quality of life and outcomes for those affected as they strive to combat the progression of the disease. 

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