What’s The Difference Between Alzheimer’s Disease And Dementia?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated September 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Alzheimer’s disease is a very common condition that affects almost six million people in the United States. It is the sixth leading cause of death in America, and deaths from this severe neurological disease have increased by 145% in the past 20 years. Many people confuse Alzheimer’s disease with dementia, but dementia is not a specific disorder. It is a term that refers to a variety of symptoms of various neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding Alzheimer's and dementia more in-depth can help you recognize symptoms in yourself or a loved one.

Article Visual

Alzheimer's Disease Vs. Dementia

The main difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is that dementia is a symptom, or sometimes an umbrella term and Alzheimer’s is a recognized disease. In fact, dementia can be a sign of many other illnesses, such as thyroid disease, infections, Parkinson’s disease, hypoglycemia, traumatic brain injury, Huntington’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Argyrophilic grain disease. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s disease could be the cause of someone’s dementia.

There are also different types of dementia, such as:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Mixed dementia

In essence, dementia is an overarching term that could be a symptom of many different conditions and disorders. Alzheimer’s disease, however, is a specific brain disease— a type of dementia. 

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative condition that can affect a person’s thinking and cognition. Does Alzheimers kill? Alzheimer's can progress to a severe loss of brain function. The complications from the decline of brain function can eventually lead to death. One in three adults dies from Alzheimer’s disease, which is more than those who die from prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. In its most advanced stages, Alzheimer’s disease can significantly diminish a person’s ability to do any of the everyday activities that they would normally do, such as showering, dressing, walking, and using the bathroom. 

Alzheimer’s disease can alter brain tissue by causing amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These are abnormal clumps and tangles of fibers in the brain, respectively. Alzheimer’s can also cause a person to lose connections between the nerve cells in the brain.

Symptoms Of Alzheimer’s Disease

The problem with diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease is that many of the early symptoms can also be normal signs of aging, such as forgetfulness. If you feel like the symptoms you're experiencing point to Alzheimer's disease, get a proper diagnosis with a professional instead of doing an at home Alzheimers test. The following are some of the most typical symptoms of brain changes due to Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Anger, depression, and anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Chronic frustration
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Changes in behavior and mood
  • A tendency to get lost in familiar places
  • A tendency to forget where things are
  • Loss of coordination
  • Trouble focusing
  • Difficulty with completing normal tasks like getting dressed or cooking
  • Inability to walk
  • A tendency to confuse words for certain things
  • A tendency to forget words when talking
  • Repetition of the same questions over and over

How Was Alzheimer’s Disease Discovered?

Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia, is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who discovered the disorder in 1906. After one of his patients had abnormal mental health problems like memory loss, strange behavior, and loss of speech, he examined her brain and found changes in the brain tissue. These changes occur in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that helps form memories. As the neurons die, other areas of the brain are affected as well, and the brain shrinks over time. 

Amyloid Plaques

The amyloid plaques are groups of beta-amyloids, which are protein fragments that disrupt and break down the connections between the brain’s nerve cells. These plaques bind themselves to your nerve cells and destroy the synapses you need for your neurons to communicate with each other. We need these synapses to think, plan, process emotions, and form and store memories. There are many types of beta-amyloids, such as beta-amyloid 42. This is the most toxic kind and has been found in high numbers in Alzheimer’s patients.

Neurofibrillary Tangles

Similar to amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles are also clumps of protein. However, these are called tau proteins, and they gather in the nerve cells. The number of these tangles in the brain correlates with the degree of dementia one has with Alzheimer’s disease. In a healthy brain, the tau proteins bind and stabilize microtubules, which are what help feed the nerve cells. In a brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease, the tau proteins stick to each other and get tangled, which is why they are called tangles. This stops the communication between nerve cells.

Article Visual

The Different Stages Of Alzheimer’s Disease

There are five stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These include preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease with mild dementia, Alzheimer’s disease with moderate dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease with severe dementia. Much of the time, the disease is not found until it has progressed to the second or third stage, but it is important to know the symptoms of each stage.

Preclinical Alzheimer's Disease

Preclinical Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by short-term memory problems. The patient is typically still functioning normally and scores higher on memory tests. Symptoms may include:

  • Slight issues with complex daily tasks, such as work and grooming
  • Trouble learning new things
  • A tendency to occasionally forget things and misplace items
  • Small changes in personality and mood
  • Slight depression or anxiety
  • Loss of abstract thinking
  • Short attention span
  • Lack of motivation
  • Less interest in things going on around them

Alzheimer’s Disease With Mild Cognitive Impairment

In this second stage of Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms may become more noticeable to the patient as well as others around them. The symptoms may include:

  • Bouts of aggression, anxiety, and depression
  • The patient not being aware of the changes
  • Difficulty finding the right words when talking to someone
  • Poor judgment or impulsive behavior
  • A tendency to get lost when traveling
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Trouble remembering recent conversations and events
  • Trouble remembering details of major events in their past
  • Increase in apathy

Alzheimer’s Disease With Mild Dementia

In the third stage of the disease, cognitive ability and memory tend to markedly decline, and it usually becomes more obvious that something is wrong with the individual. Symptoms tend to get worse. Here are some of the symptoms:

  • A tendency to get lost more often
  • Increased difficulty finding the right words
  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Delusional behavior
  • Inability to remember major world events
  • Trouble managing medicines and finances
  • Struggling with preparing and eating meals
  • Forgetfulness and confusion
  • Increase in apathy

Alzheimer’s Disease With Moderate Dementia

This fourth stage may include worsening symptoms and challenges with hygiene and health. Also, daily activities can become almost impossible, and the individual may be at risk of injury as coordination starts to fail. Symptoms may include:

  • Experiencing frequent delusions
  • Forgetting what day and time it is
  • Wandering off
  • Getting lost 
  • Making up stories if facts elude them
  • Repeating stories or memories
  • Repeating behavior
  • Experiencing insomnia or irregular sleep patterns
  • Demonstrating restlessness, aggravation, and aggressive outbursts
  • Forgetting friends and family
  • Mistaking strangers for family
  • Experiencing occasional urinary and bowel incontinence
  • Having increased trouble with getting dressed
  • Experiencing increased apathy

Alzheimer’s Disease With Severe Dementia

The final stage of this disease tends to involve a more rapid and notable increase in all symptoms. The individual may need to remain in bed and have in-home health care. The symptoms are:

  • Inability to swallow due to memory loss
  • Muscle mass deterioration
  • Weight loss
  • Frequent incontinence
  • Infantile reflexes, such as sucking
  • Inability to hold their head up or smile
  • Inability to do daily activities independently
  • Severe difficulty with speech
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Inability to sit up or walk
  • Stiff muscles and decreased reflexes
  • Constant pain in muscles
  • Extreme apathy

Treatment For Alzheimer’s Disease And Dementia

Although there are cures for some dementia cases, a possible cure depends on the cause. For example, if you have dementia from an infection, treating the infection might solve the problem. If you have a thyroid disorder or hypoglycemia, there are medications that may help with that. While there is no current cure for dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatments that can temporarily help with cognitive changes and memory loss. For example:

  • There are medications that target brain cells to improve the communication between neurons.
  • Cholinesterase inhibitors may help improve communication in the nerve cells by increasing acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter. It is typically used in conjunction with other medications.
  • Certain vitamins, such as alpha-tocopherol or selegiline, may help slow down the progress of the disease.
  • Antidepressants may help with behavioral issues and depression.
  • Sleeping aids are sometimes used to combat insomnia and sundowning.
  • Anti-anxiety medications can be used to help with anxiety.
  • Antipsychotics are sometimes used for aggression, agitation, hallucinations, and paranoia.

Alternative Treatment: Therapy

Because many of these drugs can produce serious side effects, some people opt to do without medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular option for those who wish to avoid taking medication for their dementia. Not only can CBT help with depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns in the individual with Alzheimer’s disease, but it can also help caregivers and loved ones. Those who care for their loved ones with this disease may be susceptible to depression and anxiety disorders, and they might need help, too.

Article Visual

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

If you’re a caregiver of a loved one experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms, a therapist may be able to help. It can be overwhelming to care for a loved one with this diagnosis all alone. BetterHelp is an online counseling platform with a wide network of licensed mental health providers that can offer you professional guidance and insight into your situation. 

Caregivers of those with dementia may have to stay most of the time, especially if their loved one’s condition has gone into the later, more severe stages. You can get connected from your phone, laptop, tablet, or computer and schedule sessions according to your availability. 

The Effectiveness Of Online Therapy

Those caring for individuals with dementia may need regular mental health care. Often, it’s most convenient to get this care online. One study assessed the effectiveness of an internet intervention for family caregivers of people with dementia. Researchers found that participants experienced “significantly lower symptoms of depression” and fewer “symptoms of anxiety.” These results show the efficacy of online therapy in improving the lives of caregivers of those living with dementia.  


Caring for a loved one with dementia, such as the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or even Parkinson's disease dementia, often takes patience and requires regular breaks for self-care. As the disease progresses, it can become increasingly difficult for individuals to perform everyday activities. The Alzheimer's Association acknowledges that caregivers may experience anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns related to caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Know that you are not alone in facing these risk factors and challenges. A licensed online therapist can help you navigate the process of caring for a loved one experiencing symptoms of these specific disease conditions.

Explore emotions related to Alzheimer's Disease

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet Started