What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?


By Micha Shalev

About 5 million Americans, or 10 percent of those over 65 years of age, suffer from Alzheimer’s disease according to the Fischer Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. Yet despite the prevalence of this condition there exists a great deal of confusion over what it is and what causes it.

When a loved one begins to have trouble with their memory, we panic. Is it Alzheimer’s? There is a difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia. Learn the differences so that you can be well informed.

I am frequently asked, “What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?” On one level, the answer to this question is relatively easy and straightforward. Doctors often confuse us because they prefer the word “dementia,” possibly because Alzheimer’s has become such a loaded word. “Dementia” somehow sounds less frightening to many people, and now even the experts have started using the words interchangeably.

But, they are two very different things.

In order to explain the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s one first needs to know what dementia is. It is the deterioration of our cognition. It is important to understand that dementia consists of signs and symptoms. It is a syndrome and not a disease like Alzheimer’s. There are many causes for dementia and it can be progressive or stable.

Dementia is a non-specific syndrome that targets different areas of the brain. For this reason there are many different symptoms associated with dementia. Typical areas of the brain that are affected are: communication, memory, orientation, problem solving and attention. We speak of dementia when someone has significant memory loss in addition to another impairment that causes social dysfunction.

There are different types of dementia, and Alzheimer disease is one of them. Alzheimer disease is characterized by the appearance of plaques and tangles in the brain. You can find these tangles and plaques in every aging brain but in people with Alzheimer disease there is an abnormal quantity. These plaques and tangles interfere with the functioning of the brain on different areas of the brain. Therefore Alzheimer’s is also called pathological rapid aging of the brain.

So the exact difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that dementia is a non-specific syndrome and Alzheimer is a specific disease. Many people cannot explain the difference and this is probably because Alzheimer’s is the most prominent cause of dementia. Almost 70 percent of all people with dementia are Alzheimer’s sufferers. Other causes of dementia are stroke, Parkinson, Lewy body disease, frontotemporal dementia, Huntington and even AIDS/HIV.

But is it important to know what type of dementia a patient has. There is a large variety of symptoms among all types of dementia — every type is characterized by certain specific symptoms. A doctor or neurologist can find the correct diagnosis through an examination.

Micha Shalev MHA is the owner of Dodge Park Rest Home and the Adult Day Club at Dodge Park, 101 Randolph Road. Worcester. He can be reached at 508-853-8180, by e-mail at m.shalev@dodgepark.com or you can view more information at www.dodgepark.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.