What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Micha Shalev

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.

One of the most common question I am frequently asked is “What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?” On one level, the answer to this question is relatively easy and straightforward. Doctors are some of the best at confusing us. Physicians seem to 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.

They aren’t interchangeable. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are two very different things.

In order to explain the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, one first needs to know what dementia is. Dementia is the deterioration of our cognition. In Latin it means “apart mind” or that your mind is losing the grip of your body. It is important to understand that dementia consists of signs and symptoms. This is because 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 plus another impairment that both cause social dysfunction. Unlike Alzheimer’s, dementia is not a disease in itself. It is a syndrome and it has a variety of causes from which Alzheimer’s is one of them.

Alzheimer’s 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’s disease there is an abnormal quantity. These plaques and tangles interfere with the functioning of different areas of the brain. Therefore Alzheimer’s is also called pathological rapidly aging of the brain.

So the exact difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that dementia is a non-specific syndrome and Alzheimer’s 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 have the type of Alzheimer’s. Other causes of dementia are stroke, Parkinson’s, Lewy body disease, Fronto-temporal dementia, Huntington’s and even AIDS/HIV.

But is it important to know what type of dementia patients have? In fact it sure is. Although there is a large variety of symptoms between all types of dementia, every type is characterized by certain specific symptoms. Your doctor or your neurologist are specialized in finding out what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s. Their professional examination often results in a correct diagnosis.

Micha Shalev MHA CDP CDCM CADDCT is the owner of The Oasis at Dodge Park, Dodge Park Rest Home and The Adult Day Club at Dodge Park located at 101 and 102 Randolph Road in Worcester. He is a graduate of the National Council of Certified Dementia Practitioners program, and well-known speaker covering Alzheimer’s and dementia training topics. He can be reached at 508-853-8180 or by email at m.shalev@dodgepark.com or view more information online at www.dodgepark.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.