When someone is told they have Alzheimer's and dementia, it means they have significant memory problems as well as other cognitive and behavioral issues.
In many parts of the world the words Alzheimer's and dementia are used interchangeably.
Contrary to what some people may think, dementia is not a less severe problem, with Alzheimer's disease being a more severe problem.
There is great confusion about the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia.
In a nutshell, dementia is a syndrome, and Alzheimer's is the cause of the symptom.
When someone is told they have dementia, it means that they have significant memory problems as well as other cognitive difficulties, and that these problems are severe enough to get in the way of daily living.
Confusion on the part of family and friends
The confusion is felt on the part of patients, family members, the media, and even health care providers. This article provides information to reduce the confusion by defining and describing these two common and often poorly understood terms.
- “Dementia” is a term that has replaced a more out-of-date word, “senility,” to refer to cognitive changes with advanced age.
- Dementia includes a group of symptoms, the most prominent of which is memory difficulty with additional problems in at least one other area of cognitive functioning, including language, attention, problem solving, spatial skills, judgment, planning, or organization.
- These cognitive problems are a noticeable change compared to the person’s cognitive functioning earlier in life and are severe enough to get in the way of normal daily living, such as social and occupational activities.
The Difference between dementia and Alzheimer's
A good analogy to the term dementia is “fever.” Fever refers to an elevated temperature, indicating that a person is sick. But it does not give any information about what is causing the sickness.
In the same way, dementia means that there is something wrong with a person’s brain, but it does not provide any information about what is causing the memory or cognitive difficulties.
Dementia is not a disease; it is the clinical presentation or symptoms of a disease. There are many possible causes of dementia. Some causes are reversible, such as certain thyroid conditions or vitamin deficiencies. If these underlying problems are identified and treated, then the dementia reverses and the person can return to normal functioning.
However, most causes of dementia are not reversible. Rather, they are degenerative diseases of the brain that get worse over time. The most common cause of dementia is AD, accounting for as many as 70-80% of all cases of dementia.
Contrary to what some people may think, dementia is not a less severe problem, with AD being a more severe problem.
- There is not a continuum with dementia on one side and AD at the extreme. Rather, there can be early or mild stages of AD, which then progress to moderate and severe stages of the disease.
- One reason for the confusion about dementia and AD is that it is not possible to diagnose AD with 100% accuracy while someone is alive. Rather, AD can only truly be diagnosed after death, upon autopsy when the brain tissue is carefully examined by a specialized doctor referred to as a neuropathologist.
- During life, a patient can be diagnosed with “probable AD.” This term is used by doctors and researchers to indicate that, based on the person’s symptoms, the course of the symptoms, and the results of various tests, it is very likely that the person will show pathological features of AD when the brain tissue is examined following death.
This contribution was made by Dr. Robert Stern, Director of the BU Alzheimer Disease Center.
Approximately 5.3 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer's Disease.
- As people get older, the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease increases, with approximately 50% of people age 85 and older having the disease.
- It is important to note, however, that although Alzheimer's is extremely common in later years of life, it is not part of normal aging. For that matter, dementia is not part of normal aging.
- If someone has dementia (due to whatever underlying cause), it represents an important problem in need of appropriate diagnosis and treatment by a well-trained health care provider who specializes in degenerative diseases.