Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer's

Elderly senior man

Many people assume that dementia and Alzheimer's are the same disease. But the two are actually different. One is in fact not actually a disease but a set of symptoms. When examining dementia vs. Alzheimer's, it is important to understand the differences.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

Dementia, in itself, is not a disease. It is a group of signs and symptoms that vary based on the condition or disease causing the dementia, and the area of the brain affected. There are more than eighty known causes of dementia, with the most well-known one being Alzheimer's disease.

Although many people use the terms dementia and Alzheimer's interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing; there are important differences between the two.


The word dementia is a medical term that encompasses many different conditions that all include the loss of a person's intellectual and mental functions. Dementia occurs because of changes that take place in the brain; it is a neurological disorder that can progress very quickly or very slowly. However, all cases of dementia are progressive, leading to a decline in cognitive skills and the inability to perform daily living activities.

Depending on the area of the brain affected, and the condition or disease causing the dementia, the following mental functions and cognitive skills may be affected:

  • Memory
  • Reasoning
  • Judgment
  • Thinking
  • Spatial skills
  • Communication
  • Coordination
  • Attention

A person with dementia may have difficulty:

  • Recognizing people and places that were familiar prior to onset
  • Remembering recent events
  • Remembering the names of objects
  • Remembering new information
  • Finding the correct words for expressing their thoughts
  • Performing simple calculations
  • Controlling moods
  • Controlling behavior
  • Learning or processing new information
  • Planning
  • Organizing

Dementia may also cause changes in a person's personality and behavior, or cause hallucinations. A person with dementia may show signs of:

  • Confusion
  • Aggression
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Paranoia

The impaired cognitive functions of a person suffering from dementia become so severe over time that they affect the person's ability to carry out their normal activities of daily life in all areas, including personal, occupational and social domains.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is one of the many illnesses, syndromes and conditions that can cause dementia. Many people mistakenly use the term dementia when referring to Alzheimer's disease; however, Alzheimer's disease is just one of the many causes of dementia.

The leading cause of dementia in the United States, Alzheimer's disease currently affects more than 5.3 million people. The disease accounts for approximately seventy-five to eighty percent of all cases of dementia, and affects almost fifty percent of all people that are eighty-five years old or older. However, even though Alzheimer's Disease is common in older individuals, it is not a normal part of the aging process.

The symptoms and signs of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty in expressing themselves through language either in speaking or writing
  • Difficulty comprehending language
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Difficulty making plans
  • Difficulty retracing steps
  • Losing or misplacing things
  • Difficulty identifying things that are familiar
  • Difficulty completing daily, regular and familiar tasks
  • Problems with spatial relationships
  • Problems with visual images
  • Withdrawal from family, friends or social situations
  • Confusion
  • Poor judgment

The Stages of Alzheimer's

When a person has Alzheimer's disease, the symptoms gradually appear and worsen over time. The disease has three stages:

  • Early or mild stage
  • Middle or moderate stage
  • Late or severe stage

As the illness progresses and symptoms become more severe, people with Alzheimer's disease typically experience physical and functional difficulties as well as cognitive problems. This occurs as a result of the degeneration of brain cells, as well as cells in other parts of the nervous system.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's Disease

Many times when a person has Alzheimer's disease, it is difficult to distinguish it from other causes of dementia. Medical professionals make the diagnosis of Alzheimer's based on a combination of information supplied by the patient and a close family member or friend, as well as the results of various tests.

Doctors make the diagnosis based on:

  • The symptoms a person is experiencing
  • The course and pattern the symptoms are taking
  • A complete health history
  • Mental status assessments
  • Neurological assessments
  • Complete physical examinations
  • Electrocardiogram
  • Blood analysis
  • Urine analysis
  • Possible MRI or CT

If the results of the examination and test findings point towards a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, the diagnosis made is either "possible Alzheimer's disease" or "probable Alzheimer's disease." They diagnose it in this manner because they can only make an exact diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease after a person has died and an autopsy with the tissue of the brain has been examined by a neuropathologist.

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Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer's