Dementia vs Alzheimer’s: What is the Difference?

June 26, 2020

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are often used interchangeably. But did you know that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are in fact different?

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Alzheimer’s Disease vs Dementia

Dementia is a broad term used to describe a group of conditions characterized by symptoms such as difficulties with memory, language, problem-solving, and other brain functions that affect a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks and activities. Dementia is often explained as an umbrella term, with a group of conditions falling underneath the umbrella. Underneath the dementia umbrella are hundreds of types of dementia, including the most common, Alzheimer’s disease (60-80% of cases), and others like vascular dementia (5-10%), Lewy Body dementia (5-10%), and frontotemporal dementia (FTD; 5-10%). Adults with dementia can show signs of multiple dementias, called mixed pathologies, or mixed dementia. Most dementias are progressive, and the greatest known risk factor is age. Although age is the greatest risk factor, dementia is not a normal part of aging.

Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia and is the most common type of dementia. It is estimated that 60%-80% of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include difficulty remembering newly learned information, confusion and difficulty communicating. Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, meaning it will continue to cause deterioration over time, and can eventually lead to significant memory impairment and loss of other functions. Currently, Alzheimer’s disease can only be accurately diagnosed through an autopsy, and diagnoses from a doctor while a person is living is done by ruling out all other reasonable explanations for the symptoms being experienced.

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What is the Difference?

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia. Therefore, all people with Alzheimer’s disease have a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s); however, not all dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. While Alzheimer’s disease makes up most dementia cases (60-80%), adults can experience other forms of dementia inconsistent with the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The various types of dementia are associated with the different types of brain cells that become damaged, causing the experienced dementia.

To explain the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s, we must explore the differences between Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Alzheimer’s vs Vascular Dementia

It is believed that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by plaque buildup on neurons located in the brain. This plaque buildup over time causes damage to brain tissue and eventually the death of neurons. The buildup of these plaques occurs over many years and leads to the often-slow progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The most common sign of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss that disrupts daily life. Later in the progression of the disease, symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Poor judgement
  • Behavioral changes
  • Impaired communication.

Each person with Alzheimer’s experiences different symptoms, as the plaque buildup impacts each brain uniquely.

Vascular dementia is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain, causing brain damage. Vascular dementia can be the result of a stroke that blocks a brain artery or damaged or narrow blood vessels in the brain. This impairs blood flow to the brain causes difficulties with:

  • Judgement
  • Memory
  • Reasoning
  • Planning

Many of the symptoms of vascular dementia overlap with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which can make it challenging to distinguish between the two.

Alzheimer’s vs Lewy Body Dementia

Lewy body dementia, also called dementia with Lewy bodies, is the result of protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, that develop in the nerve cells of the brain. Lewy body dementia is also progressive and often impacts thinking, memory, and motor control. People with Lewy body dementia may experience changes in attention, alertness, and even hallucinations.

The two most distinguished symptoms of Lewy body dementia, compared to other types of dementia, are the impact on motor control (slowed and rigid movements) and hallucinations. Memory loss, confusion, and other symptoms consistent with other types of dementia may also occur.

Alzheimer’s vs Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)

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Frontotemporal Dementia, or FTD, is a brain disorder that affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, hence the name, frontotemporal dementia. The primary differences between FTD and Alzheimer’s disease are the earlier onset, personality changes and maintained memory. Compared to Alzheimer’s disease, symptoms of FTD are much more likely to occur in adults at a younger age. About 60% of people with FTD are between the ages of 45 to 60, whereas 80% of those with Alzheimer’s are 75 or older. In fact, scientists believe that FTD is the most common cause of dementia is adults younger than 60 years old. Due to the damage of the frontal and temporal lobes, many adults with FTD experience personality changes and/or difficulties with communication. Similar to Alzheimer’s, FTD is progressive and in the later stages can limit a person’s abilities to communicate and care for themselves.

Curious to learn more about FTD from a caregiver’s perspective? We love this interview with Candace Williams who provides care for her mother with FTD.

Alzheimer’s vs Mixed Dementia

Mixed dementia is another common type of dementia. It is defined as an individual showing evidence of brain changes consistent with more than one type of dementia. Most commonly, adults with mixed dementia show the symptoms and changes consistent with Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Lewy body dementia has also been seen alongside Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia in people with mixed dementia. Part of the reason for the confusion around dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, mixed dementia and the various types of dementia is that diagnosing dementia is very difficult.

Diagnosis Makes Differentiation Difficult

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There is no one test to determine if someone has Alzheimer’s or dementia. Currently, the only way to diagnose dementia with certainty is through an autopsy. However, doctors can use a series of questions and tests to help determine if a person may have dementia. This is typically done through a series of tests, designed to rule out any other reasonable explanation for the changes the person is experiencing. These tests can usually help a doctor provide a reasonable diagnosis and treatment plan.

However, due to the difficulties of diagnosing dementia, data on the various types of dementia may be inaccurate. A recent study from the Alzheimer’s disease Centers suggests that mixed dementia, evidence of at least two types of dementia, is more common than originally believed. The study found that more than 50% of people with dementia showed evidence of mixed dementia and that the likelihood of mixed dementia increases with age. This fact makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate the types of dementia, as most adults experience symptoms and pathological evidence of more than one type of dementia.

The History of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

The term dementia was first used in the 13th century but officially became a medical term in the 18th century. During this time, dementia was used as a very broad term to mean all kinds of mental diseases. It wasn’t until much later that dementia became known as a group of symptoms associated with the progressive loss of memory and other cognitive functions severe enough to interfere with daily living.

Alzheimer’s disease was first described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and was named “Alzheimer’s disease” by one of Dr. Alzheimer’s colleagues in 1910. In these early years, Alzheimer’s disease was described as having the symptoms of memory loss, abnormal behavior and shrinkage of the patient’s brain.

Alzheimer’s and Dementia Facts and Statistics

• More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s
• More adults die with Alzheimer’s disease than from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined
• In 2020, more than 11 million Americans provided unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. These 11 million caregivers provided an estimated 15.3 billion hours of care valued at $257 billion.

These are just a few of the staggering statistics related to the prevalence and significance of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Due to advancements in healthcare and personal care, adults are continuing to live longer, making dementia and Alzheimer’s increasingly common. It is estimated that by 2050, twice as many Americans will be living with Alzheimer’s (12.7 million compared to 6.2 million).

There is currently no cure for any type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. There are a few medications that are approved to treat the symptoms (memory loss and cognitive function) and a recently approved drug to slow the progression, but there are no medications or treatments to reverse the disease progression.

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In June 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Aducanumab (Aduhelm™) as the first therapy to address the underlying biology of Alzheimer’s disease. Aduhelm will not cure or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, but clinical studies demonstrated a significant reduction of beta-amyloid plaque. Beta-amyloid plaques are a trademark of Alzheimer’s disease, but can also be present in other types of dementia, like Lewy body dementia, Vascular dementia and mixed dementia. It’s important to note that Aduhelm is primarily effective for those with early-stage mild dementia, may not be covered by health insurance and risk of side effects should be discussed with your medical provider before receiving treatment.

The Takeaway

While Alzheimer’s and dementia are in fact different, most people, and organizations (including the Alzheimer’s Association), use the terms interchangeably. The difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia is in fact the differences between Alzheimer’s and the various other types of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a group of conditions that cause changes in the brain.

It may help to explain the relationship between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by drawing an analogy. Let’s use exercise as an example. Please note that these topics, exercise and dementia, are not comparable. This analogy is meant only to help explain dementia vs Alzheimer’s using a familiar example.

Exercise is a broad term used to describe a group of physical body activities. Exercise can be done by walking, running, lifting weights, playing a sport, and hundreds of other ways. Exercising is like dementia, it is the large, broad term to describe many types of conditions (activities) under it. In this analogy, running is like Alzheimer’s disease, it is one, very common form of exercise (or common form of dementia). Now, running is always a type of exercise, however; exercise does not always mean running. Alzheimer’s is always a type of dementia, but dementia is not always Alzheimer’s. Just like various forms of exercise share some overlap, like running and walking are aerobic exercises, soccer or basketball both include running, and others, the various types of dementia share similarities. While this is not a perfect example, we hope it helps explain the relationship between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Incontinence

Caregivers Trust Tranquility

Due to the impact that dementia and Alzheimer’s have on the brain, many adults with these conditions experience incontinence at some point along the disease progression. When an adult with Alzheimer’s or dementia begins to have accidents, urinary incontinence at night or light drips and dribbles during the day, it is not the afflicted individuals’ fault. Dementia has a progressive effect on the brain, causing the individual with dementia to slowly change and experience the world differently.

There are three primary ways dementia or Alzheimer’s may lead to incontinence:

  1. The individual no longer recognizes the feeling/sensation of needing to urinate.
  2. The individual may have the sensation of needing to go but can’t remember what to do. In this instance, you may notice the individual tapping their leg or moving around the house looking for something.
  3. The individual may struggle to physically get to the bathroom when the sensation occurs.

Many adults without dementia experience incontinence due to various other conditions, diseases or age-related changes in the body. The above are not the only reason someone with dementia may experience incontinence, they are the primary ways the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s leads to incontinence.

Absorbent products are a great way to provide protection for adults with dementia while also allowing them the freedom and independence that is so important in the later stages of life.

In addition to providing superior absorbency and leakage control, Tranquility products provide comfort and longer-lasting wear time for uninterrupted sleep, which helps to support the immune system and overall wellness, including these related benefits:

  • Increased quality of life: More rested individuals with dementia may be more alert and may better participate in meaningful interactions, therapy and self-care with loved ones and caregivers.
  • Reduced incontinence-related falls: Superabsorbent capacity and fewer leaks reduces the urge to use the restroom.
  • Fewer skin issues and UTIs: Superior moisture-wicking keeps skin dry to minimize risk of wounds and infections.

Tranquility recognizes that caring for someone with dementia is challenging, especially if incontinence is not appropriately managed – even unknowingly. We are here to help by providing resources, tools, information and most importantly, highly-rated, superabsorbent incontinence solutions for adults with dementia.

If you know someone struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s and need help addressing challenges with caregiving, COVID-19, incontinence, and more, visit our Alzheimer’s Disease and Incontinence Resources page to learn more and find additional resources.

You can also visit the Tranquility blog for educational information related to incontinence, various disease states like dementia and diabetes, and guides to product selection and caregiving.