Learn The Difference Between Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia (And Where Caregivers Can Get Help)

By: Patricia Oelze

Updated August 28, 2020

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 terrible affliction has increased by 145% in the past 20 years. In fact, one in three adults died from Alzheimer's disease, which is more than prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. But what is Alzheimer's disease? Is it the same thing as dementia? Actually, dementia is not a specific disorder. It is a term that refers to a variety of symptoms of diseases like Alzheimer's. So Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia.

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What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a condition that takes away your ability to remember things or think correctly. As a matter of fact, this disease eventually takes your ability to do any of the daily tasks that we normally do such as showering, dressing, using the bathroom, and even walking. Alzheimer's disease alters the brain tissue by causing amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary. These are abnormal clumps and tangles of fibers in the brain. It also causes the patient 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 are also normal signs of aging such as forgetfulness and losing things. One way to tell the difference is that Alzheimer's disease symptoms get worse at night. Here are some typical symptoms of the disorder that you can look for:

  • Anger, depression, and anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Chronic frustration
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Changes in behavior and mood
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Forgetting where they put things
  • Loss of coordination
  • Trouble focusing
  • Putting things in strange places like leaving the keys in the freezer
  • Unable to complete normal tasks like getting dressed or cooking
  • Inability to walk
  • Confusing words for certain things
  • Forgetting some words when talking
  • Asking the same questions over and over
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How Was Alzheimer's Disease Discovered?

Alzheimer's disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer who discovered the disorder in 1906. After one of his patients had abnormal mental health issues like memory loss, strange behavior, and losing the ability to talk, he examined her brain and found the changes in the brain tissue. These changes occurred 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.

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 memories. There are many types of beta-amyloids such as the beta-amyloid 42, which is the most toxic and has been found in high numbers in Alzheimer's patients.

Neurofibrillary Tangles

Similar to amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles are also clumps of protein but these are called tau proteins that gather in the nerve cells. The amount of these tangles in the brain correlate 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 helps feed the nerve cells. In a brain afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, the tau proteins stick to each other and get tangled, which is why they are called tangles. They stop the communication between nerve cells.

The Different Stages of Alzheimer's Disease

There are actually five different 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 is characterized by short-term memory problems. The patient is typically still functioning normally and scored higher on memory tests. Symptoms include:
    • Slight issues with complex daily tasks such as work and grooming
    • Trouble learning new things
    • Occasionally forgets things and misplaces 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 become more noticeable to the patient as well as others around them. The symptoms include:
    • Bouts of aggression, anxiety, and depression
    • Patient is not aware of the changes
    • Struggling to find the right words when talking to someone
    • Poor judgement or impulsive behavior
    • Getting lost when traveling
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Forgetting appointments
    • 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 are markedly declined and it becomes more obvious that something is wrong with the patient. All symptoms get worse. Here are some of the symptoms:
    • Getting lost more often
    • Increasingly difficult 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
    • Often forgetful and confused
    • Increase in apathy
  • Alzheimer's Disease with Moderate Dementia: This fourth stage includes worsening symptoms, challenges with hygiene and health, daily activities become almost impossible, and the patient is at risk as coordination starts to fail. Symptoms include:
    • Frequent delusions
    • Forgetting what day it is and what time it is
    • Wandering off
    • Gets lost anywhere without help
    • Makes up stories if facts elude them
    • Repeating stories or memories
    • Trouble remembering personal information
    • Repetitive behavior
    • Insomnia or irregular sleep patterns
    • Restlessness, aggravation, and aggressive outbursts
    • Not remembering friends and family
    • Mistaking strangers for family
    • Occasional urinary and bowel incontinence
    • Increasing trouble with getting dressed
    • Increased apathy
  • Alzheimer's Disease with Severe Dementia: The final stage of this disease is a more rapid decline in all symptoms. They may need to be bedridden and have in-home health care. The symptoms are:
    • Forgetting how to swallow
    • Muscle mass deterioration
    • Weight loss
    • Often has incontinence
    • Shows infantile reflexes like sucking
    • Unable to hold head up or smile
    • Needs help with all daily activities
    • Only able to speak one or two words
    • Chronic exhaustion
    • Cannot sit up or walk
    • Stiff muscles and decreased reflexes
    • Constant pain in muscles
    • Extreme apathy

The main difference between dementia and Alzheimer's disease is that dementia is a symptom and Alzheimer's is a disease. In fact, dementia is a sign of many other illnesses such as thyroid disease, infections, Parkinson's disease, hypoglycemia, and traumatic brain injury, Huntington's disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Argyrophilic grain disease. There are also different types of dementia, such as:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Mixed dementia
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Treatment for Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Although there are cures for some forms of dementia, that depends on the cause. For example, if you have dementia from an infection, treating the infection should solve the problem. If you have a thyroid disorder, there are medications that will help that. And if you have hypoglycemia, there are treatments for that as well. However, there is no cure for dementia caused by Alzheimer's disease. But there are treatments that can temporarily help with cognitive changes and memory loss. For example:

  • Namenda (Memantine): A medication that targets brain cells to improve the communication between neurons.
  • Cholinesterase Inhibitors: These drugs help improve the communications in the nerve cells by increasing acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter. It is typically used with Namenda.
  • Certain vitamins such as alpha-tocopherol or selegiline can help slow down the progress of the disease.
  • Antidepressants such as Celexa, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft can help with behavioral issues and depression.
  • Sleeping aids such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata are sometimes used to combat insomnia and sundowner's.
  • Anti-anxiety medications such as Ativan and Klonopin can be used to help with anxiety.
  • Antipsychotics like Zyprexa, Seroquel, and Risperdal are sometimes used for aggression, agitation, hallucinations, and paranoia.

Therapy Instead of Drugs

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Because the majority of these drugs have side effects that can be potentially serious, many people are opting to do without medication. Therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy is a popular option for those who wish to avoid medication. Not only can they help with depression, anxiety, and other mental issues in the patient with Alzheimer's disease, but they can also help caregivers and loved ones. Those who have to care for their loved ones with this disease can be susceptible to depression and anxiety disorders as well and typically need help too.

If you're a caregiver of a loved one struggling with the symptoms of alzheimers or dementia, a therapist can help. We understand that it can be overwhelming to care for a loved one with this diagnosis all alone. BetterHelp operates a network of licensed psychologists and other therapy providers that can give you professional guidance an insight on your situation. The therapists at BetterHelp are available online to help 24-hours a day. The convenient online counseling options allows for you to schedule distance therapy sessions with licensed therapists from the comfort and privacy of your own home or other private location. If you're ready to get started on the path to feeling whole again, contact a BetterHelp online therapy expert today.

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