Difference between dementia and Alzheimer's
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The Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s

by Dr. Lina Velikova, MD

As we age, it’s hard not to worry about losing our cognitive functions. Alzheimer’s and dementia are two words commonly used when it comes to the elderly, and they’ve been used for more than a century. But the two words do not designate the same disease. So why is knowing the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease so important?

Dementia is a syndrome that groups symptoms related to declining cognitive mental health, while Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, the most common one. Alzheimer’s, as opposed to another type of dementia, might require treatment with a cognition-enhancing drug instead of an antidepressant.

An accurate diagnosis means the right medication, remedies, and support, and understanding the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia will help lead to it. Finally, you may be qualified to take part in a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s if you’ve been specifically diagnosed with the disease.

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Dementia vs Alzheimer’s: Definitions and Statistics

Since both dementia and Alzheimer’s affect the elderly, it’s tough to distinguish them. Furthermore, they both can cause memory loss, a decline in the ability to think and communicate, and difficulties performing routine daily activities. While dementia is an overall term used to portray symptoms that impact memory, reasoning, and communication abilities, Alzheimer’s more profoundly affects memory, language, and thoughts and gets worse with time.

Not surprisingly, half of the people with dementia in the UK and the US never receive a diagnosis officially. The delay in diagnosing it leads to limited dementia treatment options. However, early diagnosis of the disease has the potential to save $118,000 per patient.

The World Health Organization announced that 47.5 million people have dementia across the globe. The epidemiological prognosis seems pessimistic—it is estimated that 1 in 3 children born today will be affected. This will cost around $500 billion globally annually. Furthermore, the cost of dementia care and treatment is predicted to reach $2 trillion globally by 2030.

The number of patients continues to increase. The National Institutes of Health reported that over 6 million people were diagnosed with dementia in the US. Of those, about 5 million had Alzheimer’s. These same records are expected to double by 2050.

Clinical Symptoms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease symptoms involve the following:

  • Difficulty remembering recent events or conversations
  • Apathy and depression
  • Impaired judgment
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Behavioral changes
  • Problems in speaking, swallowing, or walking in the advanced stages of the disease

Nevertheless, the accumulation of the proteins tau and beta-amyloid in the brain, leading to cell death, is seen in both Alzheimer’s and some dementia types. Connections between the cells diminish, and the impairment of brain function begins. With the disease’s progression, the brain shows significant shrinkage.

Dementia is a syndrome that denotes a deteriorative decline in mental function, almost entirely nonreversible. Brain function decays day after day. The early symptoms of dementia can be mild. For example, patients complain of single episodes of forgetfulness. Then, people with dementia have trouble keeping track of time and tend to lose their way in familiar settings. But still, it’s easy to miss the early signs of dementia.

As dementia progresses, poor memory and confusion develop. It becomes harder to bring to mind names and faces. Personal hygiene becomes problematic. Most signs of dementia consist of repeated questions, inadequate self-care, and poor decision making.

In the advanced stages, people with dementia become incapable of caring for themselves. They will struggle even more with recalling the people and places they’re familiar with, tracking the time, and keeping oriented. The behavior continues to vary and can turn into depression and aggression. All these features, which result from a deterioration of brain function, comprise the most common dementia symptoms.

Alzheimer’s disease is a specific disorder that gradually destroys memory and cognitive function. Abnormal proteins form plaques and deposits in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. The effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain begins years before symptoms emerge, and they are permanent.

Difference between dementia and Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s and Dementia Causes

Dementia is more commonly developed with aging. Many disorders can cause dementia, including degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Each condition causes damage to a different set of brain cells, but the final result is always dementia. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for about 50%–70% of all cases of dementia. Other dementia causes could be vascular disease, stroke, depression, infections (such as HIV), chronic drug use, etc.

If a patient possesses more than one type of dementia, that is called mixed dementia. Often, people with mixed dementia have numerous conditions that may add to it.

Regarding Alzheimer’s, the precise cause of the disease is unidentified. However, a recent study demonstrated that those with type 2 diabetes are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s research continues to hunt down and question the link between the two diseases, although it’s still not fully understood. Some studies demonstrated that problems with the receptors for insulin and the insulin-like growth factor in the brain can reflect negatively on cognitive functions, mood, and metabolism. All of these components are observed in Alzheimer’s disease.

Research in the field of dementia evolves with the intention of treating and potentially preventing the development of this debilitating disease in the future.

How the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia Is Established and Diagnosed

To establish a dementia diagnosis, a doctor must find two or three cognitive brain areas in decline, including memory loss, language impairment, disorientation, and disorganization. Usually, this doctor is a family doctor.

A neurologist typically administers several mental-skill challenges. One of the diagnosis methods is the Hopkins verbal learning test, which consists of memorizing a list of 12 words followed by a recall of the words. A well-established test is drawing lines to connect a series of numbers and letters in a complicated sequence, which is used to evaluate driving skills.

Unfortunately, there is no definitive Alzheimer’s test. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease often relies on the exclusion of other causes of dementia. The truth is that a firm diagnosis is only possible during an autopsy, by examining the brain tissue under a microscope.

A PET scan could be handy, with 95% accuracy. However, PET scans are useful only in patients who possess typical symptoms such as having trouble recalling how to do a beloved hobby or avoiding being social. All of these alarming signs (abandoning hobbies, social activities, work projects, or sports) could be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

However, Cognetivity Neurosciences has recently developed an app that exploits a five-minute test able to measure cognitive function and spot brain impairment by using visual stimuli and artificial intelligence. Its developers promise that patients will receive an accurate, early diagnosis.

By allowing patients to track their cognitive health, they can adequately plan for their future. This unique platform aims to detect early onset dementia while measuring the effectiveness of treatment and monitoring the progression of the disease.

Unfortunately, by the time the patient has problems remembering their children’s names, it’s almost undoubtedly too late to take on any meaningful intervention. Keeping in mind that dementia is extremely difficult for patients and expensive for healthcare systems, using this app could significantly improve the rates of early detection of dementia at the first point of contact with the health system for all patients.

Difference between dementia and Alzheimer's

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Treatment

The treatment options are also different. In some cases, treating the underlying conditions that cause dementia can help. Dementia due to medications, tumors, metabolic disorders, or hypoglycemia are all conditions that should respond well to treatment. Unfortunately, in most cases, dementia isn’t reversible. But some forms of dementia are treatable with the right medication.

Alzheimer’s medication includes antipsychotic drugs for behavioral changes, cholinesterase inhibitors for memory loss, alternative solutions that aim to promote brain capacity or overall health, such as coconut or fish oil or drugs for sleep problems, and antidepressants. As we can see, although no cure for Alzheimer’s disease exists, there are several options to help manage symptoms.

A promising new player when it comes to dementia medications is an experimental drug that reinforces damaged brain cells. The novel drug, based on the benzodiazepine-like amid ligands, was patented recently. It has raised hopes of dealing with memory loss, poor decision making, and other mental impairments. Clinical trials are expected to start within two years after the drug has proved it’s safe and effective at preventing memory lapses.

Furthermore, researchers believe the drug can reverse failing memory by targeting specific cells involved in learning and memory and rejuvenating them. Thus, they suggest that this new drug, a derivative of benzodiazepine, could prevent memory loss at the beginning of Alzheimer’s and potentially delay its onset for adults aged above 55 years.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Prevention

Difference between dementia and Alzheimer's

There are many ongoing trials regarding the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Individuals who have genetic mutations attributed to the early-onset development of Alzheimer’s disease account for less than 1%, but they are the most likely to develop it.

A clinical trial that tested whether antibodies to beta-amyloid can alleviate the formation of beta-amyloid plaque in the brains of patients with these genetic mutations and thereby decrease, delay, or prevent symptoms.

Investigating how to prevent Alzheimer’s, researchers conducted another clinical trial called the A4 trial (Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s).

Though there’s no certain method to prevent dementia, the evidence is strong that people can decrease their risk by making fundamental lifestyle changes. Keeping their brains active, getting regular physical exercise, and consuming a healthy diet may lessen the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia.


What are the 7 stages of dementia?

Every person with dementia experiences the disease differently. However, people tend to follow a similar trajectory from the beginning of the illness to its end. Instead of merely using mild, middle, and late stage, the Global Deterioration Scale (GDS)/Reisberg Scale was introduced to present the brain impairment in a more comprehensive manner.

The 7 dementia stages according to the GDS are as follows:

  1. Stage 1 shows no cognitive decline
  2. Stage 2 has very mild cognitive decline
  3. Stage 3 involves mild cognitive decline
  4. Stage 4 has moderate cognitive decline
  5. Stage 5 involves moderately severe cognitive decline
  6. Stage 6 shows severe cognitive decline, or middle dementia
  7. Stage 7 has very severe cognitive decline, or late dementia

What are the 10 warning signs of dementia?

If someone is facing memory problems, don’t instantly conclude that it’s dementia. However, if they experience two or more of the following signs, then they should see a doctor:

  1. Difficulty with short-term memory
  2. Trouble finding the right words
  3. Mood changes and a shift in personality
  4. Apathy and lost interest in hobbies or activities with friends and family
  5. Difficulty completing regular daily tasks or following new routines
  6. Confusion in different situations
  7. Trouble following storylines
  8. A worsening sense of direction and spatial orientation
  9. Being repetitive in activities and when asking questions
  10. Fear of change and trouble adapting

Why does dementia cause death?

Dementia is a progressive disorder that gets worse over time. By actively damaging the brain, dementia affects the whole body, from the heart to the lungs, and digestion. The adverse effect of dementia can reach far beyond the brain and eventually cause dementia-associated death from medical complications.

When cognitive skills start to decay, the brain is unable to control other organs, and they will begin to gradually shut down. Patients with dementia are likely to die from infections and pneumonia—thus, reducing the risk of dementia by healthy eating and exercising the mind and body could help.

How long does it take to die from dementia?

The prognosis for people with dementia depends exclusively on its underlying cause. Dementia due to Parkinson’s is somehow manageable, although there isn’t currently a way to stop or even slow down related dementia. Vascular dementia due to problems with blood vessels can be slowed down, but it still shortens a person’s lifespan. Most types of dementia are irreversible and will lead to more impairment over time, eventually to death.

Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness, unfortunately. The average person that suffers from Alzheimer’s disease has an expected lifespan of about three to eight years after their diagnosis, but at the same time, some patients can live with Alzheimer’s disease for up to 20 years or more.

At what age does dementia usually start?

The risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, although younger people can get it as well. At age 60–64, approximately 1 in every 100 people will have dementia. The risk increases to about 6 in 100 for people aged 75–79, and as high as 30 in every 100 at age 90–94. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease specifically begin after the age of 60.

If a person’s symptoms of dementia appear before the age of around 75 years, they are feasible to live for another 7–10 years after the diagnosis. However, if symptoms appear when a person is aged 90 years or older, their life expectancy is closer to 3 years.

Does dementia get worse fast?

Once it arises, dementia progresses steadily over time. The following factors can negatively impact the rate of disease progression:

  • The onset of symptoms before the age of 65 years may lead to faster progress
  • A person’s genes may define the development of dementia
  • Poorly controlled heart ailments, diabetes, repeated infections, or multiple strokes are associated with fast deterioration

Dementia support groups are a pleasant source of knowledge, support, and motivation. In addition, many people who have recently been diagnosed with dementia or are in the early stages of the disease, find support groups necessary and effective.

Furthermore, other lifestyle changes, such as being involved in mental and physical activities, getting regular exercise, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, taking all prescribed medications correctly, quitting smoking, limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption, and having regular health checkups, may help the patient maintain their abilities for longer and slow the disease’s progression.

How does Alzheimer’s start?

As a neurocognitive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease happens when physical changes take place in the brain. The impairment of brain function follows the loss of connections between neurons.

However, recent research proposed that the Alzheimer’s disease brain lesions may already be existing in midlife, although symptoms of the disease remain subtle until years later. Thus, at the time of diagnosis, the disease has already started. This is why the estimated time until death is as little as three years in people over 80 years old, although it can be much longer for younger people.

In the very early stages of dementia, symptoms may be attributed to the normal process of aging. We have to mention that these symptoms are not part of the normal process of growing old. For example, the first features of the disease could be slight lapses in memory, such as struggling to find the word for something or misplacing eyeglasses. Other difficulties are related to planning, organizing, concentrating on different activities, or accomplishing tasks at work if the individual is still an employee. The first stage of dementia continues for two to four years, approximately.

Is Alzheimer’s inherited from the mother or father?

Recently, it was assessed that people who have first-degree relatives (parent, brother, or sister) with Alzheimer’s disease are four to ten times more prone to develop the disease themselves compared to people with no family history of Alzheimer’s. Even when dementia may not run in the family, there’s a genetic link in some situations.

Interestingly, it was demonstrated that the chance of inheriting the disease from the mother is higher than from the father. Understanding how the disease may be inherited could lead to better prevention and treatment strategies.

Should I get tested for the Alzheimer’s gene?

Genetic testing is available for Alzheimer’s disease. In some cases, a genetic examination may help. A gene known as the APOE-e4 is associated with higher chances of people over the age of 55 years developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Performing the test early could indicate the likelihood of someone with the gene developing the disease. However, some concerns may arise. On the one hand, the test is controversial, and the results are not entirely reliable. On the other hand, possessing the gene does not lead to developing the disease for sure. Thus, it’s appropriate to perform the test if you have a close family member with the disease or if you are experiencing some of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Difference between dementia and Alzheimer's


When looking at the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, the critical thing to remember is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. A patient with Alzheimer’s also has dementia, but only some people with dementia have Alzheimer’s as there are many different types and causes of dementia.

It’s also essential to consider the influence that dementia and Alzheimer’s can have on the patient’s family. Taking care of someone with dementia can be very demanding, and family members in a caretaker role should pursue support if they need it and look after their own health.

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