What's the Difference Between Alzheimer's and Dementia?

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Elderly Caucasian woman with bowl of soup experiencing loss of appetite
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People sometimes use the phrases dementia and Alzheimer’s disease interchangeably—like freeway and highway, or frosting and icing. But dementia and Alzheimer’s have different meanings. It’s helpful to know the difference so that you can get the best treatment.

Dementia describes a set of symptoms. Dementia is defined as problems with reasoning, remembering, thinking and behavior severe enough to get in the way of your daily life. While some memory loss is normal with age, dementia describes memory loss that is worse than expected at a given age.

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. It causes about 60 to 80% of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

What Causes Dementia?

Diseases, injuries, and even nutritional deficiencies can cause dementia. In each case, dementia is caused by damage to brain cells. This damage can affect the way you feel, act and think.

Alzheimer’s disease often starts in a region of the brain responsible for memory. As a result, one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss.

Common Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Symptoms start out mild and worsen over time as the disease spreads to other areas of the brain.

The second most common form of dementia is called vascular dementia. Vascular dementia occurs when a stroke damages the vessels that send blood to the brain. Symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease, except that they can occur suddenly.

Other causes of dementia include head injury, Huntington’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and HIV.

Because there are so many types of dementia, it is very important to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis. Pinpointing the cause of your concerns is the first step in getting treatment.

Is It Dementia?

If you are having trouble thinking or remembering, don’t write it off as “I’m just getting older.” See a doctor soon. You can probably start with your primary care doctor.

To diagnose dementia, your doctor will ask about your symptoms. Instead of saying, “I’m having trouble with my memory,” try to give examples. Here are some things a person with dementia might say:

  • “Last week I made dinner but forgot to serve it.”
  • “My daughter tells me I sometimes use the wrong words when I talk.”
  • “The other day, I went for a walk and got lost on my own street.”

You may also need to take a physical exam or have lab tests. It is also possible to be diagnosed with dementia but without a specified type. In this case, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist.

Types of Treatment

If you have Alzheimer’s, treatments can give you a better quality of life and slow the progression of the disease. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s.

You can treat some types of dementia. If the cause isn’t treatable, medications and other therapies are available to help relieve symptoms. Ask your doctor what treatments might help you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 30
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. About Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s basics. http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/topics/alzheimers-basics

  2. About Alzheimer’s disease: Other dementias. http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/topics/other-dementias.

  3. Cognitive function, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Accessed Jan 21, 2014. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/alzheimer

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