Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are two conditions that affect cognitive function and memory in older adults. While there can be significant overlap in their symptoms, they are not the same thing. In this article, our experts explain the causes, signs, and symptoms of both dementia and Alzheimer's, the differences between the two, and how you can help someone with cognitive decline get the care and treatment they need.
Early signs of dementia
Dementia is a general term used to describe a decline in cognitive function. Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a group of symptoms. The causes of dementia could be a variety of underlying conditions, including Alzheimer's disease, vascular disease, Parkinson's disease, and Huntington's disease.
Symptoms of dementia may include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty with language
- Difficulty with spatial tasks
- Changes in personality or behavior
- Difficulty with daily activities
If you notice early signs of dementia in someone with cardiovascular disease, it is important to see a doctor right away about a possible “heart-head connection.” Treatment of underlying cardiovascular conditions may improve blood flow to the brain and help control or even reverse the early signs of dementia. There are other medical causes that may be treatable, too, so see a doctor immediately.
Early signs of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer's disease, on the other hand, is a progressive brain disorder that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. It is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. The exact causes of Alzheimer's disease are not fully understood, but they are believed to be a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease typically begin with mild memory loss and difficulty with complex tasks, such as managing finances or driving. As the disease progresses, symptoms may include:
- Difficulty remembering recent events or conversations
- Difficulty with language, such as forgetting words or using the wrong words
- Difficulty with spatial tasks, such as judging distances or navigating unfamiliar places
- Changes in personality or behavior, such as becoming more withdrawn or aggressive
- Difficulty with daily activities, such as bathing or dressing
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s vs. dementia
If you or a loved one is becoming forgetful, it can be hard to tell the difference between typical changes that sometimes come with aging and the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. For help getting started, visit this webpage from the Alzheimer’s Association.
There are major differences in how a doctor diagnoses Alzheimer’s vs. dementia. Alzheimer's is a specific disease that can be diagnosed with a combination of clinical evaluations, imaging, and lab tests. Dementia, on the other hand, is a “diagnosis of exclusion,” which means that other conditions with similar symptoms must be ruled out before a diagnosis of dementia is made.
Registered nurse and BAYADA Clinical Manager Stephanie Sowers recommends, “First, get a full workup and blood panel from your primary doctor to rule out anything that could be reversible, such as dehydration or a UTI (urinary tract infection). Especially when adult children live far away from an aging parent, making sure they get regular checkups is a good way to start.”
“Depending on what you find out, you may need a referral to a neurologist for an official diagnosis. They can do much more in-depth testing. A memory care specialist can hone in on your family history and the whole picture. Especially if your loved one is having behavioral problems or mood issues, they may start them on medication and will need to continue to follow them.”
It's important to note that early diagnosis can make a difference for both Alzheimer's and dementia. Early diagnosis can help with planning for the future and may give you treatment options that won’t be available later on. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of memory loss or cognitive decline, do not delay seeing a doctor for evaluation.
Stages of Alzheimer’s
One of the key differences between Alzheimer's and dementia is the progression of the disease. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, meaning that symptoms will gradually worsen over time.
Alzheimer’s symptoms typically progress slowly in three stages: early, middle, and late stage. For more information, see this Alzheimer’s Association webpage on the Stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Stages of dementia
Dementia, on the other hand, can be stable (unchanging) or progressive (gradually getting worse) depending on the underlying cause. For example, vascular dementia, which is caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, can be stabilized or even reversed with proper treatment.
Progressive dementia can be categorized in seven stages known as the Reisberg scale, or more simply, on a three-stage scale: early, middle, and late stage. For more information about the stages of dementia and what they mean, see our article, Understanding the Stages of Dementia.
Managing symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia
There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease or dementia, but there are treatments available to help manage symptoms. These include:
- Medications can help slow the progression of symptoms.
- Therapy can help improve communication and daily functioning.
- Supportive care can protect safety and help improve quality of life, such as providing assistance with daily activities.
“When spouses or adult children start caring for someone with dementia, the first thing I tell them is you are not alone.” Sowers says.
“The biggest challenge is just ensuring their safety and managing symptoms from day to day. Wanderers should never be alone. Those with early onset dementia need to be checked on every day. And you can’t do it all yourself without feeling overwhelmed and isolated, especially if the person you care for is not able to be appreciative.”
“Caregivers who don’t like to ask for help get burned out,” Sowers warns. “So definitely enlist family members, friends, and community members to take turns. And call BAYADA to help. We do a great job finding the right person who clicks with each client and maintain open communication with the family to make things better. Not only is the respite good for you, but we know how to create a safer environment and use strategies and responses that are calm and reassuring. If your loved one’s confusion isn’t harmful, sometimes the best response is no response at all. You can just redirect or go along with it. ”
“The biggest thing is to educate yourself and understand that your loved one’s behavior is not on purpose,” Sowers says. “You need to know yourself, how you react, and how you can adapt. You’re going to get your feelings hurt, but we have to be okay with that because we can’t fix their brain, and it’s not personal. Caring for someone with dementia is challenging, for sure, but just talking about it with someone who understands can be a big relief.”