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?


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 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. Many dementias 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 a 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, difficulty communicating, and others. Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, meaning it will continue to cause additional 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 conditions and diseases.

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 in the brain that cause damage to brain issues and 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 is different, 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 impair 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 different 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)

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 difference between FTD and Alzheimer’s Disease are the earlier onset, stage personality changes and maintained memory. Compared to the 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 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.

Diagnosis Makes Differentiation Difficult

There is no one test to determine if someone has Alzheimer’s or dementia. Currently, the only way to diagnose dementia with certainty is 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 to essentially 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 mix 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 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 is a type of exercise, however; exercise does not always mean running. 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 afflicted individuals’ fault. Dementia has a progress effect on the brain, cause the individual with dementia to slowly change and experience the world differently. There may come a point where the adult no longer recognizes the feeling of needing to urinate, or the person struggles to find the bathroom in time and has an accident. Absorbent products are a great way to keep adults with dementia protected while also allowing the freedom and independence that is so important in the later stages of life.

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. At Tranquility, we recognize that caring for someone with dementia is challenging, especially if incontinence is not appropriately managed, and we are here to help through resources, tools, information, and most important, highly-rated super absorbent incontinence solutions for adults with dementia.