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What is the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Learning the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia can help you understand family members that are living with these disorders.
difference between alzheimer's and dementia

Often the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia are used interchangeably. However, there are differences.

Dementia is the term used to describe a general decline in mental ability that is disruptive enough to have a negative impact on a person’s daily life.

Alzheimer’s is a specific disease and is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all cases.

Learning about the two terms and the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia can help you understand family members that are living with these disorders. In this article, we will take a close look at dementia, Alzheimer’s, and the differences between the two.

A Look at Dementia

understanding dementia

As we have seen, dementia isn’t a single disease, but a term that covers several medical conditions including Alzheimer’s disease. Medical conditions described as dementia are triggered by abnormal changes within the brain that result in a decline in cognitive abilities – thinking skills that a person uses on a daily basis.

This decline becomes significant enough to make daily life unmanageable by affecting thought processes, behavior, moods, and relationships. Although, in most cases, dementia is more common in people over the age of 65 years, it is not a normal part of aging. Many people live to be much older without experiencing any symptoms of dementia. 

Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

As people age, once healthy nerve cells within the brain stop functioning, lose the ability to communicate with other brain cells and die. However, in people with dementia, this happens to a much greater degree. Signs and symptoms of dementia are varied and may include:

  • Memory loss: This can lead to confusion and poor judgment. 
  • Difficulty communicating: Sometimes dementia sufferers may find it difficult to speak or express their thoughts or feelings. They may use unusual words to refer to familiar things or people. They may also have a tendency to repeat questions. 
  • Inability to navigate: Often this results in people getting lost in a familiar location and wandering around without being able to recognize a familiar place. 
  • Trouble with daily functions: Daily responsibilities such as handling money and paying bills become difficult. Daily tasks may take longer than they normally would. 
  • Mood changes: Dementia sufferers may suddenly lose interest in events or activities that once brought them pleasure. They may lack empathy for others’ feelings. They may also begin to behave erratically or act impulsively
  • Problems with motor control: Dementia may result in difficulties with movement and balance. 
  • Hallucinations: Experiencing delusions or paranoia is not uncommon with dementia sufferers. 

A Look at Alzheimer’s  Disease

understanding alzheimers

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that causes the slow destruction of thinking and memory skills. This leads to the eventual loss of the ability to communicate and carry out simple tasks.

There are two types of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Late-onset: This is the more common type of Alzheimer’s disease. Signs and symptoms begin to be noticeable during the mid-60s. 
  • Early-onset: Signs and symptoms can begin anywhere between a person’s mid-30s to mid-60s. 

Alzheimer’s disease is believed to be caused by an abnormal build-up of two specific proteins in the brain. One is amyloid proteins that form plaque in and around brain cells. The other is tau protein, which causes brain cells to become entangled.

Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

The defining symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. This is generally gradual at the outset and often begins with the inability to remember recent conversations or events.

Often, family members notice these early symptoms before the person with the disease can notice it themselves.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, memory loss becomes more noticeable and other symptoms begin to arise.

These include:

  • Decline in cognitive abilities: Challenges arise with daily activities such as managing money, paying bills on time, and dealing with numbers. Multitasking also becomes difficult.
  • Difficulty making decisions: Alzheimer’s can cause a person to have difficulty making judgments and decisions in daily life. They may also be unable to respond effectively to day-to-day problems, such as wearing appropriate clothes for the weather or dealing with burning food.
  • Problems performing tasks: Because taking sequential steps becomes a challenge, planning and performing tasks become difficult. For example, playing a familiar game or preparing a meal becomes more and more difficult as Alzheimer’s progresses.
  • Mood and Behavior Shifts: Because of the changes that take place in the brain during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, changes in mood and behavior are common. You may notice the following signs and symptoms:
  • Sudden emotional outbursts
  • Irritability
  • Apathy
  • Depression
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Mistrust of family and friends
  • Aggression
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Delusions

Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia – Caring for a Loved One

caring for someone with Alzheimer's or dementia

Caring for a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can be a challenge. If you would like to find out more about either disorder or you would like to talk to someone about Alzheimer’s or dementia, here are some useful resources:

Alzheimer’s Association

Alzheimer’s Association Helpline

Additionally, WayWiser offers free caregiving support sessions with a certified Gerontologist to help you better understand next steps when it comes for caring for a loved one who is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.


Have another question? Ask an expert.

Our team is here for you. If you have a question about caring for an older adult—be it physical, legal, medical, financial, or anything in between—we’ll have one of our Trusted Advisors get back to you ASAP.

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