There can be great confusion felt on the part of family members and their aging loved ones regarding the differences between a dementia diagnosis and an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. To put it as simply as possible, dementia is a symptom and Alzheimer’s disease is a cause of the symptom.
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are as many as 50 other causes, though most of them are quite rare.
Dementia can be caused by many triggers, including:
- Diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s that cause degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.
- Stroke or diseases that affect blood vessels.
- Nutritional deficiencies, like vitamin B12 deficiency.
- Head injury, either a single severe injury or several smaller chronic injuries.
- Illnesses other than in the brain, such as lung, liver and kidney diseases.
Dementia includes a group of symptoms, with the most prominent being memory difficulty. This loss of mental function affects thinking and reasoning skills and is severe enough to interfere with a person’s activities of daily life. According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is a brain disorder affecting communication and performance of activities of daily living, while Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that interferes with parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language.
So, dementia is not a disease; it is the symptoms of a disease. Dementia is the “umbrella” term for anything that can cause interference with brain functionality, such as the aforementioned memory loss and confusion. It’s important to mention that although Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are common in aging adults, they are not a normal part of the aging process.
Main differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Being diagnosed with dementia means you are being diagnosed with a set of symptoms. Think of it like being diagnosed with a stuffy nose. You might be congested, but the cause could be a variety of things- allergies, the common cold, a sinus infection, etc. When someone is diagnosed with dementia, it’s unclear what is causing their symptoms.
Alzheimer’s disease is a very specific form of dementia. According to the Center for Disease Control, Alzheimer’s causes as many as 50-70% of all dementia cases. However, dementia is not a less severe problem and Alzheimer’s the more severe problem. There are mild stages of Alzheimer’s, which progress over time to more severe stages. Also, while some forms of dementia, like those due to a vitamin deficiency, can be reversed and are temporary, Alzheimer’s disease is not reversible.
Families who are struggling to understand what a dementia diagnosis means should remember to ask the doctor what type of dementia is actually being diagnosed. This way, they will be better prepared and know what to expect from the behaviors their loved ones will exhibit brought on by the disease.