The Differences Between Alzheimer's and Dementia

The differences between Alzheimer's and dementia are sometimes difficult to understand. However, in this article, we explain them clearly.
The Differences Between Alzheimer's and Dementia

Last update: 12 September, 2021

There’s no doubt that cognitive abilities decline with age. In fact, in recent years, there’s been an increase in knowledge about this process and its associated diseases. However, certain diagnostic problems remain. For example, it’s difficult to differentiate between Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as other disorders.

Many families find it difficult to know how to differentiate the normal signs of aging from those of the early stages of neurodegenerative disease. This often means that dementias might progress to a point that seriously harms the life of the patient.

In this article, you’ll learn how to tell the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer's and dementia differ clinically

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disorder that disrupts the functioning of neurons. It mainly affects the neocortex, producing cell death. However, in advanced stages, it deepens into internal areas of the brain.

For many years, it tends to remain asymptomatic since the brain’s power of plasticity and compensation solves the loss of functions. Nevertheless, when it can no longer “hide” it, signs of cognitive impairment and memory loss begin and can progress to the death of the person.

New studies of Alzheimer’s biomarkers make it possible to detect this disease early, even before it produces symptoms. This is especially useful for people who have a history of the illness in their family. The biomarkers of this disease are as follows:

  • The levels of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid. These are analyzed by extracting them by means of a lumbar puncture.
  • Detection of the accumulation of these proteins in the brain using positron emission tomography (PET).
  • Structural or functional imaging studies of the brain and its regions through magnetic resonance and positron emission tomography technologies with a glucose tracer.

Dementia

Dementia is a set of symptoms associated with the ability to think, reason, and remember. They cause difficulties in the normal performance of the patient’s life. However, it’s not a disease, but it can be the cause of one.

The DSM-V ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ) has changed the name from dementia to major neurocognitive disorder. Furthermore, they added a new, less severe category of cognitive impairment, called mild neurocognitive disorder. This disorder is diagnosed when the impairment of a single cognitive ability is severe enough to interfere with independence. However, the disturbance can’t have been caused by drug use, delirium, or other conditions.

The cognitive abilities that are evaluated for this diagnosis are the following:

  • Complex care.
  • Expression and understanding of language.
  • Executive functions: planning, organizing, remembering things, prioritizing, or paying attention to tasks.
  • Perceptual-motor function: visual perception of the spatial relationships between objects.
  • Learning and memory.
  • Social cognition.

Differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia

Alzheimer's and dementia have certain similarities

Now that you know about each condition a little more, you can see that there are great similarities between them. For example, memory loss and deterioration of the higher cognitive functions. However, the differences between the two disorders are substantial and, once the relevant diagnostic tests are done, the treatment will also be different.

The main differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia are as follows:

  • Alzheimer’s is a disease. However, dementia is a syndrome, in other words, a set of symptoms.
  • Dementia deteriorates cognitive functions, but it isn’t degenerative. Nevertheless, the disease that causes dementia might be.
  • Dementia doesn’t directly cause death, but Alzheimer’s does.
  • The symptoms of both follow different courses. With Alzheimer’s, it begins with small memory losses and symptoms are added as it progresses. While with dementia, the initial symptoms vary depending on the disease that causes it.
  • Dementia isn’t heritable. However, there’s evidence that having family members with the condition can increase the risk of developing it. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s does have a clear genetic link. For instance, someone with a parent or brother with Alzheimer’s will have a slightly higher risk of suffering from it.

It’s estimated that one in ten people over 65 years of age suffers from some type of dementia. Approximately 75 percent of these cases are due to Alzheimer’s disease. Although studies and medicine continue to advance, there’s still no cure for these ailments and their progress can currently only be delayed.

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