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Health Information | 01/11/2022

Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease: What’s the Difference?

By  Kathryn Bitner, NP
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often used interchangeably when discussing age-related memory loss. While Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, the two are not the same. Knowing the difference and what to look for if you or a loved one starts experiencing memory loss is an important first step at ensuring you have the tools at your disposal to maintain a happy and healthy life.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term, not a specific disease, used to describe various long-term memory-related symptoms. Symptoms can include memory decline, critical thinking issues, poor judgment or reasoning, decreased focus, and changes in language skills. It’s important to note that dementia is not normal memory loss. Dementia is caused by issues that damage the brain and often has underlying causes beyond old age. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting between 60-80 percent of all dementia patients.

While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown, researchers have pinpointed brain abnormalities, such as amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, present in Alzheimer’s patients. However, aging is still the most significant risk factor.

Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, starting with mild memory impairments and often developing into an individual being unable to care for themselves, remember loved ones, or recognize their environment. You may first notice you or a loved one getting lost in familiar places, being unable to keep up with household chores, or experiencing increased irritability and mood changes. In these cases, it’s important to communicate with your provider to determine if these symptoms are a result of Alzheimer’s, another form of dementia, or another medical issue.  It is key to remember that dementia has a gradual onset and sudden changes over only a few days typically have other causes.

There are many other types of dementia. These include:
  • Lewy body dementia – This occurs when a buildup of protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, impact chemicals in the brain.
  • Vascular dementia – Vascular dementia is caused by improper blood flow to your brain, commonly due to a stroke, heart disease, or other conditions. Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Huntington's disease – Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that causes nerve cells in your brain to degenerate.
  • Frontotemporal dementia – This is a rare type of dementia caused by nerve cell loss in the frontal or temporal lobes of the brain. It is also sometimes called “Pick’s disease.”
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – CJD is a rare, rapidly progressing form of dementia caused by protein abnormalities within your body.
  • Mixed dementia – This occurs when an individual has multiple forms of dementia at once. Most commonly, Alzheimer’s disease is linked to vascular dementia or Lewy body dementia.
Typically, dementia is diagnosed using several tests and evaluations. Providers will perform cognitive tests that measure your thinking and reason, neurological health, and mental health. They might also suggest an MRI, CT scan, or PET scan to identify potential markers of dementia and brain activity.

Risk Factors to Watch

Along with increasing age, several other risk factors may contribute to the development of dementia. Several gene mutations, like the prion protein gene, have been linked to dementia. However, you can develop dementia without any specific gene mutations. Additionally, smoking and alcohol consumption, high cholesterol, amino acid buildup, diabetes, and mild cognitive impairment have also been linked to higher incidences of dementia.

It’s also believed that brain health is closely related to heart health. Roughly 25 percent of people who have had a stroke will eventually develop dementia.

Preventing and Treating Dementia

Because the causes of dementia are still being studied, there is no definitive way to prevent it from occurring. However, evidence suggests that healthy lifestyle habits can reduce your risk for certain types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Maintaining a healthy blood pressure, exercising regularly, reducing your alcohol consumption, avoiding social isolation, and participating in mentally enriching activities can further reduce your risk of developing dementia.

While there is no cure for dementia, certain medications and therapies can be used to improve symptoms. Cholinesterase inhibitors and a drug called memantine have been found to boost brain function. Antidepressants and sleep medications may also help alleviate mood disturbances. Your provider can work with you to find the right treatment options for your unique needs.

A dementia diagnosis can be scary, but early detection and intervention is the best way to make sure you get the right treatment at the right time.

For people and their families dealing with dementia, there are also resources to help deal with these diseases, including support groups and help at home. Reaching out to your provider if you or a loved one needs support can really help.

About The Author

Kathryn Bitner, NP

Kathryn (Katy) Bitner, NP, joined Atrius Health in 2019 and is a primary care provider at our Boston/Kenmore location. She attended undergraduate school at the University of Chicago and graduate school at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions. She is board certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Katy’s clinical interests include geriatrics and helping patients manage chronic diseases.

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