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

September 16, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:

There’s a lot of confusion around dementia and Alzheimer’s. Many people who are caring for an aging relative struggle to understand the key signs and differences, which can prevent them from getting proper treatment. Manisha Parulekar, M.D., FACP, AGSF, CMD, chief of the Division of Geriatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center helps break it down.

Dementia is an umbrella term for several conditions that affect memory, and Alzheimer’s falls within that group. Alzheimer’s is one specific type of dementia. There are multiple types of dementia.

“Simply put: If you have Alzheimer’s disease, you also have dementia,” explains Dr. Parulekar. “Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia.”

The main difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that dementia is a group of symptoms, not a disease, whereas Alzheimer’s is a disease. Similar to when you experience a sore throat – a sore throat is the symptom you’re experiencing, but strep throat is the infection that’s making your sore throat occur. Alzheimer’s is a disease that is causing dementia to occur.

Also, some causes of dementia are reversible or temporary, such as a vitamin deficiency or drug interaction but Alzheimer’s disease is not reversible at all.

What is Dementia?

Dementia refers to a group of symptoms that impact memory, communication and daily activity performance.

“Symptoms of dementia can begin with episodes of forgetfulness or getting lost in familiar settings. Confusion and forgetfulness can grow as dementia progresses,” notes Dr. Parulekar. “Asking questions repeatedly, poor decision-making, withdrawal from social activities, and changes in behavior can also be symptoms of dementia.”

There is no single test to diagnose dementia. “Through a collection of tests and analyses, including a medical history evaluation, a physical examination and neurological testing, we can determine if a patient has dementia; however, because the symptoms and brain changes among various types of dementia can overlap, determining the exact type of dementia is more challenging,” Dr. Parulekar explains.

Types of dementia can include Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease dementia, Huntington’s disease and of course, Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the World Health Organization, about 47.5 million people around the world are living with dementia.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about 60% to 80% of dementia cases.

As previously mentioned, Alzheimer’s occurs when there are high levels of proteins in the brain preventing nerve cells from connecting. This eventually leads to brain tissue loss and brain cell death, slowly causing impairment in memory and cognitive function.

With Alzheimer’s disease, patients may experience apathy, depression, disorientation and behavioral changes and have a hard time speaking, swallowing or walking and recalling recent events or conversations.

“Just like diagnosing other forms of dementia, there is not one test to identify if a patient has Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Parulekar. “A team of experts – neurologists, neuropsychologists, geriatricians and geriatric psychiatrists – will work together to identify signals of Alzheimer’s. Brain imaging and scans, neurological exams, cognitive testing and physical evaluations are all part of the testing process.”

More than 5 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, the National Institutes of Health reports. While younger people can develop Alzheimer’s disease, its symptoms are more common in people over 60.

Although there is no cure for dementia, or Alzheimer’s, finding the right treatment plan can help relieve some symptoms and better a patient’s quality of life. “As each patient is different, their care plan will be unique to their needs. It’s our job to find the best, most comprehensive plan, to maximize their quality of life,” explains Dr. Parulekar.

Led by Dr. Parulekar — who is board-certified in internal medicine, geriatric medicine, and palliative and hospice medicine — Hackensack University Medical Center’s Geriatric Medicine program is the first facility in the nation to earn The Joint Commission’s Disease-Specific Care certification in geriatrics delirium. To schedule an appointment, please click here.

To learn more about dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or to make an appointment with one of our specialists, visit HackensackMeridianHealth.org/Neurology.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



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