Many people use the terms “Alzheimer’s” and “dementia” interchangeably, but they actually have distinct meanings. Understanding the difference between the two can be helpful to a person who is experiencing the effects of either or both in themselves or in a loved one, or who is interested in learning more about the prevention of similar diseases.
A simple comparison may help set the stage for a discussion of the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Think of the connection between a condition like a persistent cough and a disease like tuberculosis. A cough itself is usually the result of some other disease or irritant. In other words, it can have many different causes, one of which is a disease like tuberculosis. Similarly, dementia can have various causes, one of which is Alzheimer’s. Read on for a deeper understanding of these two terms and their relationship.
Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to a set of progressive health effects that result from one or more diseases that cause damage to the brain and nerve cells. Dementia statistics show that it mainly occurs in people over age 65, and that roughly two thirds of those with dementia are over age 80. Symptoms can vary depending on the individual, the cause, and the part of the brain most affected, but they generally include things like:
Memory loss associated with everyday activities, such as trouble remembering names or appointments
Difficulty expressing thoughts through speech and/or writing
Challenges completing familiar tasks that were once easy and/or routine for them
Difficulty solving problems, especially when they involve planning ahead and/or require complex tasks
General disorientation or confusion, such as getting lost while walking or driving or forgetting where they are or what day it is
Poor coordination and trouble with spatial awareness
Misplacing things especially in unusual places, and being unable to retrace their steps in order to find them
Emotional or personality changes, such as an increase in suspicious or inappropriate behavior, agitation, or anxiety
Dementia can also be caused by Parkinson's disease, vascular disorders in the brain, thyroid-related illnesses, or even vitamin deficiencies. That’s why obtaining an accurate diagnosis is essential, because dementia from some causes may be reversible if the core issue is caught and treated at the right time.
Alzheimer’s Disease, Defined
What is Alzheimer’s disease? As mentioned above, Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia. It’s thought to be caused by the formation of unusual protein deposits in the brain—specifically amyloid-beta and tau. These proteins are present in healthy brains as well, but they function abnormally in people with Alzheimer's; Amyloid-beta forms plaques outside the cells, while tau forms tangles inside them. These plaques and tangles then progressively damage and destroy nerve cells, which causes gradual deterioration of brain function. At its most advanced stage, several complications can occur due to a severe loss of brain function. This can eventually lead to death, which provides an affirmative answer to the common question, “Does Alzheimer’s kill?”
Alzheimer’s is strongly correlated with age and typically occurs in those over age 65. Early-onset Alzheimer's that begins showing signs in a person’s 30s, 40s, or 50s is possible, but rare. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are typically mild at first and worsen over time. As the person’s brain function deteriorates, they’ll have increasing difficulty making sense of the world around them and caring for themselves. Common symptoms of the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s can include:
Losing track of dates or their current location
Taking longer than normal to complete daily activities
Memory loss that’s disruptive of daily functioning
Misplacing items, especially in odd places
Difficulty planning ahead or solving problems
Repeating questions or forgetting information recently learned
Trouble with daily tasks such as feeding or bathing themselves
Mood and personality changes
If Alzheimer’s is the correct diagnosis for an individual experiencing the above symptoms, they will continue to worsen until they’re unable to care for themselves or communicate and will eventually experience serious medical problems.
Can Dementia Or Alzheimer’s Be Treated?
As mentioned above, a few causes of dementia can be cured if diagnosed early and treated in time. However, most forms of dementia are complex and challenging to treat, and they often progress to the point where they’re irreversible and where the people experiencing them find it difficult to live independently. This is the case for Alzheimer’s as well. Certain medications—such as cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine—may help slow the progression of memory loss and other cognitive changes, though they may cause undesirable side effects. In the best of cases, they can only slow the disease’s progression, not cure it.
There’s no cure currently available for Alzheimer’s or most forms of dementia. That means creating a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment for the person experiencing this condition(s) is typically the main focus after a diagnosis has been made and the disease has progressed to a certain level. Creating a set routine and minimizing memory-related tasks may help make their lives more manageable. If you or a loved one is experiencing even mild symptoms of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s, it’s typically worth speaking with a medical provider right away.
Therapy For Caregivers
If you’re caring for someone who is showing signs of or has been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it can be challenging to navigate. Their care needs may increase significantly, and watching someone you love decline in health and functioning may lead to chronic stress and/or symptoms of a mental health condition like anxiety and depression. If you’re experiencing challenges like these, seeking the support of a therapist may be helpful. They can provide you with a safe, nonjudgmental space in which you can express and process your feelings and get emotional support and advice on healthy coping mechanisms.
Those who are caretakers to a loved one often have busy schedules and may not have time to visit a therapist regularly for in-person sessions. In cases like these, online therapy can represent a helpful alternative. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home. Research suggests this method can be equally or even more effective than in-person sessions in many cases. For example, a 2020 study found that online therapy resulted in “sustained, clinically meaningful improvements” in symptoms of depression and anxiety. In other words, you can generally feel confident choosing whichever therapy format may work best for you.
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