What’s the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

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While many people use the terms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia interchangeably to refer to cognitive decline that occurs later in life, they aren’t the same thing. Understanding the two terms can get confusing, especially if you or someone you love has just been diagnosed with either. We’ll break down a few key things to know about how these conditions overlap and differ.

There are different types of dementia

Dementia, which affects nearly 50 million people worldwide, is not actually a disease, but a syndrome. Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia. Everyone who has Alzheimer’s develops dementia, but not everyone who develops dementia has Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s isn’t the only type of dementia, though it is the most prevalent, affecting between 60 to 80 percent of those with dementia. It’s also worth noting that people can have more than one type of dementia at the same time.

Here are a few common types of dementia that aren’t Alzheimer’s related:

  • Lewy body dementia (LBD), considered the second most common form of dementia, is seen in those with abnormal protein deposits (alpha-synuclein), called Lewy bodies, in several different regions of the brain. (In Alzheimer’s, the protein to watch out for is beta-amyloid.) Lewy bodies can also be present in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease. And it’s possible to have both LBD and Alzheimer’s.
  • Vascular dementia is brought on by a stroke or a chronic illness that blocks or limits blood flow to brain cells. Symptoms can appear suddenly and rapidly after a stroke or develop slowly over time if they’re the result of a vascular disease. Those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease are at increased risk for the condition.
  • Frontotemporal dementia relates to damaged nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain that are responsible for behavior and language. These changes don’t seem to be triggered by head trauma, and their cause is still unknown.
  • Short-term memory loss may be sparked by vitamin deficiencies (like low levels of B12) or thyroid problems. The good news: This type of dementia is generally reversible with appropriate treatment.
  • Huntington’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, both of which are progressive neurological disorders, can also trigger dementia as the diseases progress.

Some symptoms overlap, but not all

A decline in mental function, including the ability to think and recall information, is the general hallmark of both dementia and Alzheimer’s. So the broad symptoms, like difficulty remembering new information, confusion, agitation, or difficulty speaking, will be the same for both.

But there are often a few characteristic differences depending on the type of dementia a person has: With LBD, for example, people may experience hallucinations, as well as issues with balance that may not affect Alzheimer’s patients until later stages. People with Huntington’s or Parkinson’s disease who develop dementia experience involuntary shaking and other motor function issues that people with Alzheimer’s may never develop. And vascular dementia may not cause memory loss at all if the regions of the brain associated with memory maintain adequate blood flow.

Treatment will vary

Doctors will tailor care to the type of dementia a person has. Drugs used to help with Alzheimer’s may be used for other types of dementia as well. But remember: While some drugs can improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia for a time, nothing can stop its progression, so treatment options remain limited.

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