This Is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s

By | May 12, 2019

There are 47 million people living with dementia worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. While dementia and Alzheimer’s may be used interchangeably, there are important differences between them. Here’s what you need to know.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

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First thing to know: How to tell the difference between dementia vs. Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is an umbrella term for symptoms like impaired memory and thinking that interferes with daily living; Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia. Other types of dementia include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia—about 60 to 70 percent of the time a patient with dementia has Alzheimer’s,” says Richard Isaacson, MD, Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The reason you hear about Alzheimer’s most often is not only because it is the most common type of dementia, but also because “the science behind Alzheimer’s is the most advanced across all dementias,” Dr. Isaacson says. These are some of the early signs of Alzheimer’s.

Causes of dementia are vastly different

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A medical illness, metabolic issue (like a nutritional or thyroid problem), vascular disease (like a stroke), or, rarely, infectious diseases can affect brain cells, causing dementia. Even Mad Cow Disease, which is very rare, can contribute to dementia, explains Dr. Isaacson. A condition called depressive “pseudo” dementia is another possible source. As he explains, when levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin run low, you may have trouble paying attention. And when you’re distracted, you have trouble remembering things, which can manifest as dementia.

On the other hand, Alzheimer’s has its own origins. It’s a brain disease marked by deposits of beta-amyloid plaques and proteins called tau that damage cells in brain regions that control functions like thinking, memory, and reasoning. Here are the habits that can increase your risk of dementia.

Multiple factors can be at play

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There’s also what’s called mixed dementia, meaning there are multiple conditions that are coming together to cause dementia. “Thirty percent of the time, patients who have Alzheimer’s also have a vascular disease that makes cognitive symptoms worse,” says Dr. Isaacson. Alzheimer’s and dementia with Lewy bodies (in this disease, clumps of alpha-synuclein proteins develop in the brain) has also been found to occur together.

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