Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: What’s The Difference?

By Danni Peck

Updated May 09, 2019

Reviewer Kelly Coker, M.B.A., Ph.D., LPC, NCC

Alzheimer's disease is one of the most well-known medical conditions thatolder adults face. That isn't surprising. After all, 5.5 million people 65 and over and 200,000 younger than 65 are struggling with it in the U.S. alone. Dementia, on the other hand, often seems like a fuzzy term that can mean various things to different people. One of the most confusing aspects of this subject is that the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia isn't always clear. It's important to understand the difference, especially if you or a loved one receives either diagnosis.

Alzheimer's And Dementia: Definitions

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So, what's the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia, anyway? The first thing to consider is the difference between the definitions.

Dementia Definition

Dementia is a brain disorder that affects your memory and personality and impairs your reasoning. Dementia is a group of symptoms rather than one specific disorder.

Alzheimer's Definition

Alzheimer's is a general degeneration of the brain. The disease may start gradually but gets worse as it goes along. It can happen in middle or old age and is a fatal condition. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases.

Alzheimer's vs. Dementia: Causes

The causes of dementia vs. Alzheimer's can be quite different. Determining the cause is crucial to getting the treatment you need. Your doctor should determine the cause as soon as possible so that it can be corrected or minimized if possible.

Causes Of Dementia

As a more general term than Alzheimer's, the term dementia can be causedbymany different ways. The following is a list of some of the causes of dementia:

  • Cerebrovascular diseases, such as stroke, that prevents normal blood flow to the brain, preventing brain cells from receiving needed oxygen
  • Traumatic brain injuries that kill brain cells
  • Prion diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • HIV, when it damages brain cells
  • Certain medication interactions
  • Depression
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Thyroid abnormalities
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies, a neurological condition that has to do with abnormal structures in the brain and causes changes with a protein called alpha-synuclein
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Huntington's disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia also called Pick's disease
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus that causes cerebrospinal fluid to build up in the brain
  • Alzheimer's disease

Causes Of Alzheimer's

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Even though Alzheimer's isn't as broad a term as dementia, there are still several causes. Various causes work together to cause brain cell death. Alzheimer's is a neurodegenerative illness. While research is ongoing, no specific underlying cause has been determined. The following risk factors make it Alzheimer's more likely:

  • Early-onset Alzheimer's: genetic mutations on chromosomes 1, 14, and or 21
  • Late-onset Alzheimer's: gene changes in a gene called APOE e4
  • Unhealthy lifestyle
  • Environmental factors
  • Increasing age
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Lack of social and physical activities

Alzheimer's vs. Dementia: Symptoms

What's the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's regarding symptoms? Some symptoms are the same. That's why it's so important to talk to a doctor to narrow down exactly what's causing the symptoms.

Dementia Symptoms

Depending on the underlying cause of dementia, there may be symptoms related to the physical causes. However, symptoms usually cited for the beginning stages of dementia include:

  • Problems remembering recently-learned information and other changes in short-term memory
  • Mood changes
  • Difficulty choosing the right word
  • Confusion
  • Apathy
  • Being repetitive
  • Trouble following storylines when listening to conversations, reading books, or viewing entertainment
  • Getting lost often and having a poor sense of direction
  • Difficulty adapting to changes
  • Trouble managing medications or finances

Alzheimer's Symptoms

When you first begin to notice the early symptoms of Alzheimer's, you might think normal aging causes them. If you're only having trouble with your memory, it may be the normal slowing-down of your brain. Your doctor or therapist can ask the right questions to discover if other symptoms indicate it's Alzheimer's. These are common signs you have Alzheimer's:

  • Trouble remembering new information
  • Disorientation
  • Mood changes
  • Behavior changes
  • Increasing confusion about location, time, and events
  • Unfounded suspicions
  • Later, symptoms like trouble with speaking, swallowing and walking

Dementia vs. Delirium

Another term that's related to Alzheimer and dementia is delirium. Delirium is a condition that affects the brain, but its symptoms are quite different. It usually comes on suddenly and lasts only a short time. The other difference between delirium and dementia is in the symptoms. The following symptoms are associated with delirium:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation as to time, place and person
  • Memory loss
  • Disorganized thinking with trouble focusing on one topic
  • Frequent mood changes
  • Being easily distracted
  • Being withdrawn, with little response to what's going on around you
  • Nonsense speech or rambling
  • Trouble recalling words
  • Trouble understanding others
  • Trouble reading and writing
  • Hallucinations
  • Restlessness
  • Physically aggressive
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Fear, anxiety, paranoia
  • Anger or irritability
  • Euphoria
  • Personality changes
  • Depression

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Causes of delirium vs. dementia may be a severe medical illness, changes in metabolism, medication, surgery, alcohol or drug withdrawal, or infection. Because many of the symptoms overlap between delirium and dementia, you need to talk to a doctor to find out which is the problem. The doctor may talk to family members and your caregiver to get more information for making the diagnosis.

Alzheimer vs. Dementia: Treatments

The difference between Alzheimers and dementia that matters to you most, especially if you've already been diagnosed, is what types of treatments can help. Dementia vs.Alzheimer's treatments are sometimes the same and sometimes very different, depending on the cause and symptoms of your specific condition.

Doctors use a variety of treatments together to help you reduce your symptoms, keep your daily activities as normal as possible, improve your cognitive abilities, deal with your emotions about the diagnosis, and be emotionally and physically healthier.

Dementia Treatments

Many of the treatments for dementia aim to solve the underlying problem that's causing dementia. These may include vitamins, antibiotics, or other remedies for the problem causing dementia. If the disease at the root of dementia can't be helped, the goal of treatment is to minimize the symptoms of dementia.

Common treatments for dementia include psychosocial therapies, making changes to the environment, and medications. These three types of treatments are usually used together for a holistic approach to dementia. Psychosocial therapies can include:

  • Behavior therapies
  • Psychotherapy
  • Cognitive therapies and brain training
  • Stimulation therapies such as art therapy, music therapy, or exercise
  • Occupational therapy to help with activities of daily living

Medications can help with the direct symptoms of dementia as well as the mood problems and disordered thinking that goes along with dementia. Medications for dementia include:

  • Anti-dementia agents like Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne
  • Namenda
  • Antipsychotic drugs, such as Zyprexa or Risperdal
  • SSRI antidepressants, such as Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Prozac, Luvox, or Zoloft
  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as Ativan
  • Medications may also be added to prevent future strokes

Alzheimer's Treatments

Some of the medications listed above under dementia treatmentswere first developed as treatments for Alzheimer's. In fact, the anti-dementia agents have proven most effective for Alzheimer dementia.

When considering what the difference between dementia versus Alzheimer's is, one thing you can notice is the purpose of the treatment. Treatments for dementia address its specific cause if possible, as well as the quality of life issues. Alzheimer's dementia treatment can't yet address its cause, but it can sometimes delay the progression of the disease and can improve your quality of life.

Dementia vs.Alzheimer's: Prognosis

It's very important to ask your doctor about the expected course of your specific condition rather than making assumptions on your own.

The difference between dementia and Alzheimer'sregarding what you can expect requires complex assessment of your condition. With dementias, including Alzheimer's dementia, the course of your condition will depend on its cause. Some dementias, such as those caused by medication interactions or vitamin deficiencies, could be cured completely after the right changes are made.

Alzheimer's and certain other forms of dementia are incurable and progressive. Alzheimer's is a terminal illness. The best way to know for sure what is the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia outcomes is to receive an accurate diagnosis and advice from your doctor or therapist on what to expect.

Treatments for Alzheimer's and related symptoms include:

  • Anti-dementia agents like Aricept, Exelon, and Razadyne for mild to moderate Alzheimer's
  • Anti-dementia agent Namenda for moderate to severe Alzheimer's
  • Medication and non-drug treatments for mood problems and behavior

ICD Codes For Dementia and Alzheimer's

Another point of contrast between Alzheimer s vs. dementia is the ICD 10 code for Alzheimer's dementia versus the general dementia code. The ICD code has a specific meaning and purpose and knowing what they may prove beneficial for you or your loved one.

What Is An ICD-10 Code?

ICD-10 is the International Classification of Diseases, Tenth Edition. All healthcare providers, hospitals, health insurance companies, and others who are governed by the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) must use the ICD-10 code to document diagnosis, the bill for services, and track progress.

The ICD-10 offers more accurate descriptions of medical conditions. The codes acknowledge the degrees of risk and severity of diseases and make clear distinctions between symptoms of diseases. They also help with billing issues between you, your health insurer, and your healthcare provider.

Dementia ICD-10 Code

Some of the ICD-10 codes for dementias other than Alzheimer's include:

  • F01: vascular dementia, arteriosclerotic dementia
  • F03: unspecified dementia
  • F09: unspecified vascular dementia
  • F02: dementia with other diseases
  • 1: Senile dementia with delirium

These are only a few of the codes. Codes can include information on the basic disorder,and possibly additional information or related diagnoses in the digits after the decimal point.

Alzheimer's ICD-10 Code

The main ICD 10 Alzheimer's dementia code is F00. More specific codes for different Alzheimer's conditions include:

  • 0: dementia in early-onset Alzheimer's
  • 1: dementia in late-onset Alzheimer's
  • 2: Dementia in Alzheimer's, atypical or mixed
  • 9: dementia in Alzheimer's, unspecified

Alzheimer's dementia ICD 10 codes can be difficult to understand. Fortunately, you can talk to your doctor, therapist, or other person trained in Alzheimer's diagnosis and treatment to learn exactly what these codes mean in your case.

Getting Help To Deal With Alzheimer's And Dementia

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Getting a diagnosis can be a major turning point in the course of your struggle with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.Your primary care doctor can do a preliminary assessment of your condition and refer you to a dementia expert for a thorough examination and evaluation. That person will likely tell you if you have Alzheimer's or another dementia, and if so, what type you have.

Dealing with Alzheimer's or dementia may be one of the hardest things you'll ever do. The challenges begin even before you or your loved one receives a diagnosis. What you need most in addition to good medical care is individual and community support.

Talking with a therapist regularly can help you cope with the stress surrounding these conditions. You can talk to a licensed therapist whenever and wherever you choose by going to BetterHelp.com. Whether you're the person who has the condition, you're their caregiver, or you're a loved one who wants to help as much as possible, therapy can help you face the challenges you're experiencing now as well as those that lie ahead of you.


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