David Troxel: Alzheimer’s and dementia — what’s the difference?

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According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, these numbers are projected to increase to nearly 14 million. You might have heard the terms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia used interchangeably. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are, in fact, different terms with different meanings.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease of the brain that slowly causes impairment in memory and cognitive function. It affects memory, language and thought. The disease typically progresses in three general stages — mild (early stage), moderate (middle stage) and severe (late stage).

Dementia isn’t a specific disease, but it’s more of an overall term used to describe a group of symptoms associated with decline in memory or other thinking skills. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, responsible for approximately 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia, but there are more than 50 types of dementia. While some cognitive decline is age-related, neither is considered a part of normal aging.

There are many causes of dementia including degenerative neurological diseases such as; Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease. Additionally, vascular disorders, traumatic brain injuries, central nervous system infections, long-time alcohol or drug use may cause dementia. In most cases, dementia isn’t reversible, but there are some drug treatments that might temporarily improve symptoms.

While the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia can overlap, there can be some differences. Both conditions may cause a decline in the ability to think, impaired memory, and a difficulty with communication. Alzheimer’s disease symptoms may include; difficulty remembering recent events, depression, impaired judgment, confusion, lack of personal hygiene and behavioral changes.

If you think you or a loved one are exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately. The earlier it’s detected and diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin.

There are many benefits to early detection. First, it allows access to treatment options that may not be available in the more advanced stages of the disease. While there’s no cure an early diagnosis gives a better chance of benefitting from treatment. This includes a possibility to participate in a variety of clinical trials. Secondly, an early diagnosis allows more time for you and your loved one to plan for the future. You’ll be able to communicate your wishes to your family about what you want during each stage of the disease. Additionally, planning ahead allows you to express your wishes about your legal, financial and end-of-life decisions.

There are many resources available to those diagnosed, as well as their families who provide care to their loved ones. Information and support can be found online at the Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org, and includes a 24/7 helpline, 800-272-3900.

David Troxel, MPH, is an internationally recognized expert in Alzheimer’s disease and memory care. He has co-authored six influential books relating to dementia care as well as staff development and training. He is a consultant for Carson Tahoe Expressions Memory Care at Carson Tahoe Care Center opening this month.


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