Dementia vs. Alzheimer's: What's the Difference?
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.
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.
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 Dementiaview 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:
- Being unable to finish all the steps of a familiar task like making a recipe, or writing a check.
- Getting lost when driving a familiar route.
- Having trouble remembering recent events or conversations.
- Misplacing items frequently.
- Inability to keep a household organized the same as previously.
- Frequently repeating questions, or asking for information to be repeated.
- Being unable to learn and remember how to do something new, like operating a new appliance.
- Frequently not remembering common words, or names for things.
- Confusion and perhaps anger, fear, and defensiveness when they don't remember.
- Emotional changes such as paranoia and depression.
- 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.
Has this person's ability to remember changed?
Why are you interested in Alzheimer's vs. Dementia?
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
Percentage of People with Alzheimers
95 and above
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
- Poor nutrition or dehydration
- Renal failure
- Thyroid problems
- Brain tumor
- Brain trauma
- Hearing loss
- 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.
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.
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.
Questions & Answers
Is it hurtful to the loved one to ask how they feel about losing their memory? Would they be concerned or afraid? Do they understand the progression and what lies ahead for them?
The answer is not simple and not the same for every situation or point in time. I definitely think it is a good idea to give your loved one a chance to talk about what is happening and how they feel about it. However, not every person is going to want to discuss this. Many of them may try to hide or deny their memory loss. In fact, it would not be uncommon for someone to get angry if you brought the subject up, especially if they are in the middle stages of Alzheimer's. I'm not sure it is useful to let the person know what they will face. If they ask about this, you can share it, but I think it can be very discouraging and might even make the person very depressed. I think the message I would give is that you will help them at any stage along the way and that you will work together with the doctors to help them find the best ways to remember things. Finally, it is important to assure them that you will always love them and think the best of them, even when they can't remember something.