Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not the same thing, although many people believe them to be synonyms. There are several types of dementia and only one of them is caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Are Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia the Same? No.
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe diseases that cause a decline in mental abilities, characterized by loss of memory, difficulties in completing simple everyday tasks, or thinking problems.
There’s a common misconception that dementia is part of the aging process, but the loss of mental functions is the sign of a disease that affects brain cells and their capacity to communicate. The term senile dementia is an example of this misconception and it’s often used to refer to people having cognitive problems caused in fact by Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia. This explains perhaps why many use these terms to describe a person with such symptoms. AD accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases. However, some people can have two types of dementia at the same time, a condition known as mixed dementia.
Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms vs Dementia
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are generally similar to those of dementia, although some are also present in other types of dementia. Since most cases of dementia are caused by Alzheimer’s, it’s only normal that most studies on dementia list the main symptoms of AD.
The most common symptom for Alzheimer’s and dementia is short-term memory problems, sometimes referred to as forgetfulness—losing objects, missing appointments, difficulties keeping track of bills.
Difficulties in finding the right word is another symptom of dementia, and this problem is common in Alzheimer’s patients. It also appears with frontotemporal dementia.
Behavioral issues, depression, and apathy are common in various types of dementia, including AD.
The inability to follow instructions and a failing sense of direction are another dementia symptom. People with Alzheimer’s also have trouble finding their way to a familiar location, but this problem appears in vascular dementia as well.
Alzheimer’s Disease vs Frontotemporal Dementia
Frontotemporal dementia refers to a group of nervous disorders that affect the frontal lobes of the brain, situated right behind your forehead, and the temporal lobes, located behind your ears. These lobes control behavior and personality.
By contrast, Alzheimer’s disease affects the back part of their brain and the memory circuits deep inside the brain. The symptoms of the two diseases are therefore quite different.
Frontotemporal dementia causes behavioral changes, especially in social situations, as well as troubles speaking or understanding language. People with AD usually have trouble finding the right word or remembering names, but until the most severe stages of the disease, they can sustain a conversation.
In frontotemporal dementia, people may not make sense when they speak and do not seem to understand what they’re being told. In some cases, people have problems with the meaning of words, while in others they forget grammar rules.
The behavioral changes can be radical. For example, a person who has been against smoking all her life may suddenly take up smoking. Other people cannot control themselves in a social situation and shock everyone by making inappropriate remarks.
Frontotemporal dementia usually strikes people in their 40s or 50s, while AD is more common over the age of 65.
Alzheimer’s Disease vs Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy Body Dementia is a progressive brain disorder that is responsible for 10-15% of all dementia cases. Just like Alzheimer’s, LBD is characterized by abnormal deposits of a protein, called alpha-synuclein, which affects the parts of the brain that control behavior, cognitive abilities, and movement. Recent studies have shown that this alpha-synuclein protein might be involved in the development of Parkinson’s disease.
Some of the early symptoms of LBD are similar to those of AD—confusion, troubles thinking and memory loss, although not as prominent as in Alzheimer’s.
There are, however, some major differences:
· People with LBD start experiencing hallucinations early on, whereas in AD these appear in the later stages.
· Severe Parkinson’s-like movement problems—loss of balance and rigid muscles—are common in LBD but only appear in the last stage of Alzheimer’s.
· LBD causes problems with the autonomic nervous system, such as sudden blood pressure drops when standing, dizziness, and incontinence. In AD, incontinence is a symptom that manifests itself when the disease becomes severe.
Alzheimer’s Disease vs Vascular Dementia
Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s. It’s caused by damage from a temporary lack of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, usually following a stroke or a series of strokes.
Other conditions can trigger the onset of vascular dementia, such as atherosclerosis, endocarditis, or amyloidosis. Vascular dementia is responsible for 15-20% of dementia cases.
Some of the symptoms of vascular dementia are similar to those caused by AD, and one person can have both diseases at the same time.
These two types of dementia share a few symptoms:
· Short-term memory problems
· Trouble managing financial matters, such as paying bills or writing a check
· Trouble concentrating or following instructions
· Incontinence or loss of bowel control, although these appear in the later stages of AD
There are, however, certain symptoms that are specific to vascular dementia. One of the symptoms that causes a lot of problems is the tendency to wander away and get lost, especially during nighttime.
At the same time, people with vascular dementia have behavioral problems and might laugh or cry at inappropriate times. Hallucinations are another symptom of vascular dementia, although they can also be encountered in people with severe Alzheimer’s.
Some vascular dementia patients have a visible one-sided body weakness. However, this is not a symptom of the disease itself but a side-effect of the stroke that caused brain damage in the first place.
Alzheimer’s Disease vs Huntington’s Disease
Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that causes a decline in cognitive functions, behavioral changes, and movement problems, symptoms that appear in different types of dementia as well, including Alzheimer’s.
Huntington’s disease is transmitted from parents to children through a mutation in a gene that causes the degeneration of nerve cells in certain parts of the brain.
The main symptoms of Huntington’s disease are:
· Progressive decline in cognitive abilities
· Abnormal movements
· Irritability, depression, and anxiety, but also psychotic behavior
· While Alzheimer’s disease is more common in old age, Huntington’s disease is often diagnosed in people aged 35 to 50.
It’s important to remember that many other conditions can cause non-Alzheimer’s dementia, such as:
· Acute infections (meningitis, encephalitis, syphilis, or Lyme disease)
· Brain tumors or metastases from other types of cancer
· Vitamin deficiencies, especially B1, B6, and B12
· Severe dehydration
· Traumatic injuries to the brain
· Alcohol poisoning, but also poisoning caused by exposure to heavy metals (lead), recreational drugs, or other toxic substances
Why We Need to Identify the Exact Type of Dementia
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common dementia, but as we’ve seen, various other conditions can cause a loss of cognitive abilities. It’s important to diagnose the exact type of dementia a person has as in this way treatment will more effectively alleviate symptoms.
Someone who has vascular dementia will need medication to address the damage caused by the lack of oxygen to the brain, while people with Alzheimer’s need drugs to slow the formation of beta-amyloid protein deposits in the brain tissue.
Unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases, the damage to the brain is irreversible and the only thing doctors can do is try to slow the progression of the disease and alleviate the symptoms.
But as machine learning and other technologies enable the creation of new diagnostic methods, faster diagnosis and emerging treatment options bring hope to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia in their early stages.