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Dementia vs. Alzheimer's: What's the Difference?

Updated on July 6, 2017
VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne was a caregiver for in-laws with Alzheimer's, and she shares her extensive research in dementia and elder care to help others.

Dementia vs. Alzheimers

Dementia refers to symptoms of memory loss that interfere with daily life.

Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia in people over 65.

Why You Need to Know the Difference

In common speech, we often mix up these two terms. We might even throw in that old term "senile." Are these terms the same? Not exactly. Alzheimer's is one of the more common causes of dementia—and one of the least treatable. Some causes of dementia, like hearing loss (which my mother had) are completely treatable (after she got hearing aids, we realized my mom's memory was fine).

That is why it is so important to make sure you don't just assume someone with memory problems has Alzheimer's. More importantly, neither condition is a natural part of aging. If someone you love seems to be having trouble with remembering, you should consult a doctor because some causes of memory loss are caused by medical problems that can be treated.

Both of my in-laws were in the middle stages of Alzheimer's when this picture was taken.
Both of my in-laws were in the middle stages of Alzheimer's when this picture was taken. | Source

Diagnosing Memory Loss

Along with doing a regular medical check-up, a doctor who suspects dementia may give a simple memory test like the one below, which can reveal gaps in brain functioning that might not appear easily in a regular conversation. One thing I learned in my research is that the ability to have social interaction is often one of the abilities that is retained the longest. What people with Alzheimer's lose first is what is called "executive function," or the ability to think about several things at once or draw conclusions.

My Story

For two very stressful years, my husband and I took care of his parents when they moved to our town. We were at a loss to understand their erratic behavior, paranoia, and inability to complete daily tasks. While a doctor had mentioned they both had "dementia," we thought that just meant they had ordinary forgetfulness due to aging. Finally, another doctor used the word, "Alzheimer's," and we started investigating what that meant. When we finally understood that both of my in-laws had a disease, it helped us to have a place to start researching how we could best respond.

Shortly after my in-laws passed away, my mother started to have signs of memory loss. My brother and I were worried—but since we knew she had previously had hearing loss and surgery, we took her to visit an ear, nose and throat doctor. His tests showed she has almost complete loss of hearing. Hearing aids miraculously restored her "lost memory." My articles are my attempt to share what we learned to help others.

My experiences with both kinds of memory loss have led to my research and writing to help others.

How to Evaluate

Here is a sample screening quiz like the ones I heard my in-laws given by their doctor. I've created based on sample questions given by David Geldmacher in Contemporary Diagnosis and Management of Alzheimer's Dementia. Tests like this are easy to do as a quick screening device for dementia symptoms.

Quick Quiz for Diagnosing Dementia


view quiz statistics

What Dementia Looks Like

"Dementia" means memory loss. Everyone has moments of forgetting someone's name, or where they put the car keys. Dementia is different. We use this word to describe the symptoms of someone whose loss of memory starts affecting their daily life. Typical behaviors are:

  1. Being unable to finish all the steps of a familiar task like making a recipe, or writing a check.
  2. Getting lost when driving a familiar route.
  3. Having trouble remembering recent events or conversations.
  4. Misplacing items frequently.
  5. Inability to keep a household organized the same as previously.
  6. Frequently repeating questions, or asking for information to be repeated.
  7. Being unable to learn and remember how to do something new, like operating a new appliance.
  8. Frequently not remembering common words, or names for things.
  9. Confusion and perhaps anger, fear, and defensiveness when they don't remember.
  10. Emotional changes such as paranoia and depression.
  11. Hoarding behavior, especially about money and valuable items, but also sometimes hiding unusual things like kitchen utensils or tools.

Each person may show different signs of the memory loss. When trying to determine whether your loved one, friend or neighbor has dementia, the key is to consider:

  • Does this person's ability to remember seem changed from the past?

If so, it is important to have that person examined by a doctor. Dementia is a symptom of a medical problem. It is not an ordinary part of aging. So anyone who exhibits signs of unusual memory loss should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Key Question

Has this person's ability to remember changed?

Why are you interested in Alzheimer's vs. Dementia?

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What is Alzheimer's?

While dementia is the set of symptoms revealing memory loss, Alzheimer's is the main cause of those symptoms.

So what is it? Doctors define it as a brain disease which can only be verified authoritatively when a brain is autopsied and the characteristic plaque Only identified as a disease in 1906, Alzheimer's can still only be definitively diagnosed in a brain autopsy, where tangles or plaque can be seen in the brain.

Although memory loss in older people has been documented since antiquity, it was only in 1906 that the condition was considered a disease after a German neurologist, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, published an account of the unusual pathological structures in the brain of a patient of his named Auguste, who had exhibited progressive brain and memory dysfunction in her 50s.

Prognosis and Treatment

  • Prognosis: This progressive disease leads to ever increasing loss of mental functioning as well as personality changes and eventually death, although many people with Alzheimer's die from infections or other medical complications caused in part by poorer brain functioning. Most patients live 6-8 years after being diagnosed.
  • Treatment: While there are no cures, some drugs work to help some patients slow the decline of the disease and retain mental abilities longer. Other drugs can be used to combat the depression and paranoia which often come with the damage to the brain. More importantly, caregivers who work to help the patient make the best use of the abilities that remain can help the patient live out a more comfortable and fulfilling life.

Alzheimer's by Age

Age
Percentage of People with Alzheimers
under 60
1%
65
2%
70
4 %
75
8%
80
16%
85
30%
90-94
40
95 and above
58%
From Contemporary Diagnosis and Management of Alzheimer's Dementia by David S. Geldmacher
Treating early is helpful for care givers.
Treating early is helpful for care givers. | Source

Reversible Dementia

If you suspect someone of having dementia, it is very important to have them examined by a doctor. While 70% of cases of dementia in people over 65 are caused by Alzheimer's and will be progressive, there are some important causes of memory loss that can be treated and reversed. For example:

  • Diabetic who has lost control of blood sugar levels
  • Uncontrolled hypertension
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Infection
  • Poor nutrition or dehydration
  • Depression
  • Renal failure
  • Thyroid problems
  • Stroke
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain trauma
  • Hearing loss
  • Anemia
  • Drug reactions or wrong medications

Losing memory never a normal part of aging. It is always a sign that something is wrong, and since sometimes dementia can be treated and reversed or slowed down, it is very important to see a doctor to eliminate these possible causes.

Before getting hearing aids, my mom never participated in family dinner conversations
Before getting hearing aids, my mom never participated in family dinner conversations | Source

Reversal of My Mom's "Dementia"

I experienced this recently with my own mother. For a couple of years, we had been concerned about her memory. She often asked to have me repeat things I had already told her or didn't seem to remember things that other people had said. Knowing she had previously had trouble with her hearing, my brother and I urged her to visit an ear, nose and throat doctor.

The result of her hearing test showed she had a complete hearing loss in one ear and very significant loss in the other. I am grateful to now understand that what appeared to be not remembering was actually not hearing.

After she was fitted for hearing aids, we found that all of our concerns about her memory were erased. It took a while for her to adjust to not living inside her own quiet world, but eventually, we realized that she really had never had any memory problems at all. She simply had not been hearing what we said and her inappropriate responses were her attempt to cover up what she did not hear.

Further Reading

If you are concerned about the memory of a loved one, or even yourself, you might want to explore further in my article "How to Know if My Mom or Dad has Dementia" or consider making an appointment with your doctor to see if any of these reversible conditions are the cause.

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    • VirginiaLynne profile image
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      Virginia Kearney 3 months ago from United States

      Hi Vocalcoach, I'm sorry to hear you are having to watch this happen to a younger sibling. It is a very difficult disease for families to endure together. You have my thoughts and prayers.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 3 months ago from Nashville Tn.

      My younger sister has Alzheimer's and watching her decline just breaks my heart. Your hub is helpful and well presented.

      Thank you.

    • Raine Law Yuen profile image

      Raine Law Yuen 23 months ago from Cape Town

      Thanks for this great hub. It has helped to clarify the difference and I love your writing style. You simplify complex issues in a relateable manner.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Thanks so much for this informative hub here. I have always wondered exactly what the difference is between the two. My sweet mother had dementia. She went on to be with the Lord this past Christmas.

      Up and more and sharing

      God bless you. In His Love, Faith Reaper

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
      Author

      Virginia Kearney 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much dinkan!

    • dinkan53 profile image

      dinkan53 4 years ago from India

      Clear and understandable, i like the way of presentation. One can easily distinguish dementia and alzheimers. Voted up and rated as an useful hub.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
      Author

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Wow Tonipet--that is a powerful reminder not to neglect the time we have now.

    • Tonipet profile image

      Tonette Fornillos 5 years ago from The City of Generals

      One hubber Kj-force, posted a poem hub about dementia which she entitled "Now that we have the time, the you I used to know is no longer there"... it's a very touching poem dedicated to a beloved who has dementia. Both alzheimer's and dementia could be very hard. Thanks for all the information.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
      Author

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks kissayer--I know that you are a nanny for little ones, and while I was caring for my in-laws I had 3 preschoolers in tow. The duties of caring for both ends of the age spectrum are similar, but it is harder to emotionally care for people who used to be different.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
      Author

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Seeker7, thank you so much for giving your own experiences. I have to say that I have a close-up picture of my mother-in-law that really would be useful for the Hub I'm writing now on Advanced Stage Alzheimers, but I just couldn't use it. It was too personal and graphic, especially since she was not that way until the very last week or so. Dementia of any kind is a very difficult for everyone. Even three years after my in-laws have passed away, I still think about them every day. I will certainly be thinking and praying for you as you care for your father.

    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      Excellent and very useful hub!

      Having looked after many elderly people who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, you're right about death coming within a few years. Most of my elderly clients were about 3 or 4 years and many of them died with pneumonia. I think as well that in addition to the obvious mental changes that occurr, the physical changes in the person as the condition progresses is awful. When I looked at photographs of my clients a couple or so years before diagnosis and then looked at them while they had this terrible condition, it was hard to believe that they were the same person.

      My Dad has Parkinson's Disease and I'm the main carer for him now. I cared for one gentleman a number of years ago who developed Parkinson's related dementia and that was awful for the guy and his family. With Dad there is no sign of this and hear's hoping he never does suffer from it.

      A fabulous hub that will help professional carers and families understand more about dementia V's Alzheimers. Voted up + shared

    • kissayer profile image

      Kristy Sayer 5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      This is a fabulous hub! So many people don't even realise that there is a difference between Dementia and Alzheimers. Great info! Voted up!

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
      Author

      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      There is a difference in the speed that we think at as we age. It is normal to take a little longer to think about things. I have known several well-known professors who were quite sharp in their 80s, but would sometimes take a bit longer to formulate what they wanted to say. Dementia is different. Dementia is a break down of mental processing which interferes with a person's ability to care for daily needs. Although dementia can be seen frequently in people 80 and over (as you can see in the chart), it is not a normal process of aging and indicates some type of medical condition causing the dementia. Sometimes nothing can be done to prevent that, but it is very important to make sure that a doctor has evaluated the person to see if there is anything which can be done.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
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      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      So glad this helped Barbara!

    • sharewhatuknow profile image

      sharewhatuknow 5 years ago from Western Washington

      I am kind of at a loss here. As a care provider, part time, for an 82 year old gentleman, I cannot see how dementia is not a part of aging. My late paternal grandfather was diagnosed with dementia in his 70's, my late step-grandfather in his early 70's, the person I care for, now in his early eighties, etc...I sincerely believe dementia is caused by aging.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Kay Badder 5 years ago from USA

      This hub supplied a lot of good information and was interesting. Now I understand the differences between Alzheimers and Dementia. I always wondered.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
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      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much for adding the information about your mother. I have not included in this Hub the different types of Alzheimer's, nor the other non-reversible conditions which cause dementia. You are absolutely right that only medical help can help sort these out. I'm guessing many people who would search for this topic are just in the beginning of this journey. I'm sure your hubs would be helpful in giving people information.

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      Christy Garrett 5 years ago from TX

      Great article. My mom has a rare form of Alzheimer's called Picks disease. I wrote several hubs about her and about her journey with Picks disease. She was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's and dementia. Its definitely hard to tell the two apart without the help from trained doctors and neurologists.

    • VirginiaLynne profile image
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      Virginia Kearney 5 years ago from United States

      Thanks so much kelleyward--I really appreciate your comment. It has taken a few years for me to even be able to go back to this subject to write about it, but I really would love to save someone the anguish and stress we went through in trying to understand what was happening with my in-laws.

    • profile image

      kelleyward 5 years ago

      Top notch hub! As an RN I understand that many people get confused about the differences between dementia and alzheimers. Your hub is a fantastic resource. Voted up, useful, awesome, and shared! Take care, Kelley

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