The terms dementia and Alzheimer’s are often used interchangeably, but the two mean slightly different things. Dementia typically refers to the overall symptoms of memory loss, communication difficulties and problems completing everyday tasks. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that gets progressively worse as time goes on and is most commonly associated with memory, language and other cognitive difficulties.
Understanding the difference between the two empowers individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s, as well as their loved ones and care providers, as it gives the necessary knowledge behind each disease so that you can get the best support for your specific needs.
In this article, we’ll explain the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia and highlight some common signs and symptoms that you can look out for if you’re concerned.
What is Dementia?
While we often refer to dementia as its own disease, medically speaking it’s an umbrella term that covers a range of different, specific illnesses. It’s a catch-all that refers to symptoms such as:
- Memory loss
- Confusion when in unfamiliar environments
- Communication and language problems, such as being unable to find the right words
- Difficulty retaining focus or paying attention
- Changes in personality and mood
- Trouble with tasks that require organisation or planning
Not all those with dementia will have all of these symptoms, nor will they have them to the same degree. In most cases, however, the symptoms will get progressively worse as the disease develops.
While many of the symptoms of dementia look like the typical signs of ageing, it’s important to know that dementia is more complicated. It’s caused by abnormal changes to the brain that trigger a decline in a person’s cognitive abilities.
There are over 200 subtypes of dementia, each with its own specific set of causes and sets of symptoms. Some of the most common types and causes of dementia include:
- Vascular dementia is one of the more common forms; caused by problems with the blood supply to the brain.
- Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is much less common and is due to progressive damage to the frontal or temporal lobes. There are three kinds of FTD; one is predominantly related to behaviour, one to a person’s ability to remember and speak words, and one that begins with speech difficulties and progresses to behaviour issues.
- Lewy Body dementia is another common form and occurs when protein deposits clump together in the brain, which can make it difficult to control movements.
- Parkinson’s Disease dementia is a type of dementia affecting those who had previously been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It can cause a range of symptoms, from hallucinations and tremors to difficulty concentrating and problems sleeping.
- Mixed dementia occurs when more than one type or cause of dementia is present. The most common presentations of mixed dementia involve Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and Lewy Body dementia.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for between 60%-80% of cases. Like most kinds of dementia, it usually affects people over the age of 65, but those in their 40s and 50s might develop early-onset Alzheimer’s. In these cases, Alzheimer’s can be genetic, with family members across multiple generations developing the disease.
Depending on who you ask, there are up to 7 stages of Alzheimer’s; from the preclinical stage to a lack of physical control. However, it’s easier to understand them as 3 main categories: early-, middle- and late-stage.
Early- or mild-stage Alzheimer’s
During the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the person will likely still be very independent. For much of this stage, it’s even possible that they themselves do not notice anything is wrong or changing. Close loved ones might begin to notice that their relative sometimes struggles to find the right words, or tend to misplace everyday objects. In most cases, this will be chalked up to normal changes due to ageing.
Gradually, these memory issues will become more pronounced, and it will become harder to blame the symptoms on age. They might have trouble remembering something they had just read, forget people’s names when introduced, or even find it hard to remember plans and stay on top of things like bills and meal planning.
Towards the end of this stage, as we move into the more moderate stage of the disease, you might find that your loved one needs increasing support as their daily routine becomes more disrupted. If you’re noticing these symptoms, we advise reaching out to a doctor or Alzheimer’s disease specialist to begin looking at both treatment and support options to help your loved one manage their disease.
Middle- or moderate-stage Alzheimer’s
As time goes on, memory problems will continue to worsen, but as we move into the second stage of Alzheimer’s, other issues or behaviours may become apparent. The middle stage of Alzheimer’s tends to be the longest-lasting, and it’s also the point at which more and more care is required.
At this stage, symptoms begin to vary quite significantly from person to person. Some may have a better recollection of their own personal history, while others might struggle in this aspect. The person might become confused more easily; having a tendency to wander and become lost, or not being able to remember what day of the week it is. Situations such as social gatherings that require a lot of thinking can become distressing and overwhelming, leading to your loved one becoming withdrawn or frustrated.
Damage to your loved one’s brain cells will now likely be causing personality changes. You may notice that they are more suspicious of people, they show less of an interest in doing things, or they’re exhibiting repetitive behaviours such as hand-wringing. They may also be experiencing hallucinations or delusions.
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the person will have been able to live independently, with some infrequent check-ins to make sure they’re doing okay. As they progress into the moderate stages, the level of care they need will begin to increase. They will still be able to do some of their daily tasks, but they’ll likely need a lot more assistance, especially as time goes on. Medication might also be beneficial to help manage symptoms.
Late-stage or severe Alzheimer’s
As the damage to your loved one’s brain cells worsens, their condition will continue to deteriorate into the severe stages of Alzheimer’s. During the late stages, it will become very difficult for them to manage their own care as they lose the ability to respond to their environment. It might be the case that hospice care becomes the best option, in order to ensure that the individual’s needs are met.
Conversation and communication will become difficult, which also becomes hard as they can no longer tell you how or where they are experiencing pain. They may still be able to use words and phrases, but getting across a specific thought might be too challenging. Their physical control will also begin to deteriorate, making it hard to walk, sit, and eventually even swallow.
During the later stages of Alzheimer’s, you can still connect with your loved one through activities such as listening to music, reading to them, or helping them look over old photos. Reassurance through a gentle touch can also be very comforting.
What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
As we’ve explained above, Alzheimer’s disease is one cause of dementia, while dementia is an umbrella term for a range of different illnesses. Strictly speaking, there is no difference: dementia is the overall category.
However, there are some symptoms of other kinds and causes of dementia that don’t appear until much later in Alzheimer’s. If your loved one is demonstrating more language problems or behavioural changes, it’s likely they have a different kind of dementia, such as Frontotemporal dementia.
Dementia treatment with Dementech
Understanding dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can be very difficult for individuals and their loved ones. The experts at our leading private memory clinic can help; from diagnosis to treatment for a bespoke, end-to-end service that has helped thousands of families live happier, healthier lives. If you’re concerned that a loved one is showing signs of memory loss, get in touch with us today to arrange a consultation to get better insight into what might be going on. From rapid testing to state-of-the-art facilities and clinic trials, we can offer a wide range of support for both patients and their families.