Dementia Vs Alzheimer’s: How to Spot the Difference
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Dementia Vs Alzheimer’s: How to Spot the Difference

Many people are confused about dementia versus Alzheimer’s. While people often use the terms interchangeably, they aren’t the same.

Dementia is a general term that describes symptoms that affect memory, communication skills and the ability to self-care. Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia. While Alzheimer’s causes dementia symptoms, it is possible to spot the difference between the two.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a diminished mental function that is not reversible, and that affects daily living.

There are many different types of dementia. Some are common, and others are rare. Alzheimer’s causes 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases and is the most common type of dementia. This likely contributes to the confusion about dementia vs Alzheimer’s.

The second and third most common types of dementia are vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia. Both account for 5 to 10 percent of dementia cases.

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia occurs when restricted blood flow damages small blood vessels in the brain. This can occur after a major stroke or when someone experiences a series of minor strokes. Symptoms include confusion, disorientation, trouble speaking or understanding speech, and vision loss.

It’s essential for everyone to know the symptoms of a stroke. Quick medical attention can help to reduce effects.

Lewy Body Dementia (LBD)

Lewy Body Dementia occurs when abnormal deposits in the brain damage brain cells over time. Researchers don’t know the cause of this type of dementia. Symptoms are similar to all kinds of dementia, including confusion, changes in thinking, and memory loss. Other symptoms include visual hallucinations and delusions, difficulty walking, and uncontrolled muscle movement. Some medications can help treat symptoms of the disease, but there is no cure.

Other Types of Dementia

Huntington’s Disease: A defective gene causes Huntington’s disease and symptoms often develop around age 30 to 50. The most noticeable sign is the uncontrolled movement of arms, legs, face, and head. But, the disease also causes symptoms typical of dementia such as changes in mood and depression.

Parkinson’s Disease: The first signs of Parkinson’s disease are typically tremors, shakiness, and muscle stiffness. As it progresses, 50 to 80 percent of those with Parkinson’s will experience typical dementia symptoms.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Researchers are still working to understand exactly what causes Alzheimer’s. Currently, most research focuses on two types of changes in the brain.

  • Plaque. Deposits of protein form plaque buildup in the spaces between nerve cells.
  • Tangles. Cells have a buildup of twisted fibers of another protein.

Autopsies reveal that most people’s brains form plaque and tangles as they age. However, someone with Alzheimer’s develops more and the changes happen in a particular order. The first area affected is the area of the brain that holds memory. Then, the plaque and tangles move to other areas of the brain.

Researchers believe that a large amount of plaque and tangles block communication among cells in the brain. That blockage prevents the nerve cells from performing their normal function, and they eventually die.

Alzheimer’s isn’t a sign of normal aging. In fact, around 200,000 Americans under 65 years old have younger or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

What Causes Alzheimer’s?

While researchers haven’t identified a specific cause for Alzheimer’s, there are risk factors that can indicate a higher risk of contracting the disease.

  • Age. While early-onset Alzheimer’s can affect people under 65, most people who have the disease are older than 65.
  • Family History. If your parents or siblings suffer from Alzheimer’s, you’re more likely to develop the disease. And, if more than one first-degree relative has the disease, your chances increase even more.
  • Genetics. Researchers have found genes that they believe have a link to Alzheimer’s. Some of those genes represent an increased risk, and some very rare genes seem to cause Alzheimer’s. However, doctors don’t recommend genetic testing at this time. Since there is no treatment for Alzheimer’s, testing won’t change the care provided.
  • Head injuries. If you have suffered head injuries, Alzhemer’s may be more likely.
  • Heart problems. Since your brain has a rich network of blood vessels that keeps it healthy, a weak heart may represent a more significant risk.

If you are concerned about risk factors for Alzheimer’s, your Iora Primary Care team can discuss how to help manage your worry.

Dementia vs Alzheimer’s: Symptoms

Spotting the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s is possible. The first step is to talk to your primary care team about your symptoms, which can vary depending on the type of dementia. For example:

  • Vascular Dementia: Symptoms include confusion, disorientation, trouble speaking or understanding speech, and vision loss. These symptoms would typically appear after a stroke or a series of strokes, therefore the symptoms would appear almost at the same time.
  • Lewy Body Dementia: Symptoms include confusion, changes in thinking, and memory loss. Other symptoms include visual hallucinations and delusions, difficulty walking, and uncontrolled muscle movement.
  • Other Types of Dementia: For both Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease, the most noticeable symptoms are physical including tremors, shakiness, and uncontrolled movement.

Some key differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s:

  • Alzheimer’s doesn’t typically affect vision
  • Alzheimer’s doesn’t typically cause hallucinations or delusions
  • Alzheimer’s doesn’t cause physical symptoms such as tremors or uncontrolled muscle movements
  • Alzheimer’s symptoms start small and increase over time

Alzheimer’s symptoms are things you will notice increasing over time. You’ll typically see three stages of the disease: mild, moderate and severe.

The confusion caused by Alzheimer’s symptoms can often lead to significant changes in personality. A person may become fearful, anxious, and easily upset.

Dementia vs Alzheimer’s: Treatments

There is no cure for any of the dementia diseases, but you can work with your primary care provider to help manage your symptoms. By working with your doctor, you can come up with a plan to treat Alzheimer’s:

  • Memory Problems: The FDA has approved two types of medications that may lessen memory symptoms for a limited amount of time. The drugs are typically used in the mild to moderate stages of the disease.
  • Behavioral Problems: Although the FDA hasn’t approved any medication to treat behavioral problems, antidepressants, antipsychotics, or antianxiety medications may help. Work closely with your primary care team to carefully monitor any side effects.
  • Sleep Problems: Some sleep medications may help, but, there is a high risk when giving these medications to Alzheimer’s patients.

Any medications may have side effects or risks to people with dementia. Caregivers and family members can also work closely with a primary care team to determine non-medical treatments. For example, determining the cause of behavioral problems, and changing the environment or removing obstacles.

Hopefully, you now understand the differences between Alzheimer’s vs dementia. If you become concerned about yourself or a loved one, talk to your doctor right away. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a difference.

Any type of dementia requires treatment from a caring and empathetic care team. You’ll want to work with physicians and caregivers who understand the disease, and the frustration dementia causes for both the patient and their loved ones. In a situation where there is no cure, you’ll need a primary care team that will give you the time and guidance you need.

At Iora Primary Care, we are focused on primary care for seniors on Medicare. Our teams of doctors, nurses, behavioral health specialists and health coaches can help patients and their families make a personalized care plan for dementia.