The Difference Between Alzheimer's and Dementia

Did you have a “senior moment” today? The term can be a humorous way to laugh off misplacing your keys, forgetting a birthday, or taking a bit more time than usual to recall the word lingering “on the tip of your tongue.” Your senior moment may prompt knowing chuckles from friends – but for the one in three older adults who will develop dementia, including the 5 million adults in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s disease, memory changes are no laughing matter.

Many people still use older terms such as “senility” or “senile dementia” when referring to these brain changes. However, dementia covers a range of conditions. It’s important to find out which kind of dementia you or your loved one might be facing.

Alzheimer’s Disease vs. Dementia

“Dementia is not a specific diagnosis but a term to describe a wide variety of symptoms that lead to a decline in function,” explains dementia care nurse Brigid Reynolds, RN, in practice with the Memory Disorders Program at George Washington University.

“Alzheimer’s disease is one type, and it is the most common type,” she says, “Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.”

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What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the buildup of excess plaques (abnormal bunches of protein fragments) and tangles (twisted protein threads found in dead or dying cells) in your brain. Although the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease hasn’t been pinpointed, researchers believe having too many of these plaques and tangles can short-circuit some of your memory and thinking processes. This can result in Alzheimer’s disease symptoms such as:

  • Losing track of the date or season
  • Forgetting where you are or how you got there
  • Inability to recall the names of friends and family
  • Difficulty reading or writing, or finding the words to say what you want to say
  • Forgetting your childhood memories
  • Changing mood or personality, such as becoming more anxious or fearful
  • Withdrawing socially or from activities you once enjoyed
  • Changing sleep patterns
  • Difficulty carrying out tasks such as balancing a checkbook or planning the home-cooked meals that once were easy to prepare

Alzheimer’s disease progresses slowly over time, so at first you might not notice these changes.

Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia

“People are scared to death of the diagnosis,” acknowledges Certified Dementia Practitioner Joan Wright, in practice with Norwell VNA and Hospice in Norwell, Mass. Additionally, she says, people avoid taking a loved one or themselves to the neurologist because “they assume it’s Alzheimer’s disease.”

That assumption can be dangerous. Sometimes dementia-like symptoms are due to reversible conditions such as a lack of certain vitamins, infections, depression, and thyroid disease. Or, if you have a type of dementia that is not Alzheimer’s, your treatment plan could be quite different than it would be for Alzheimer’s disease. The medications that can help with one type of dementia might not help or might even be harmful for someone with another form of dementia.

Wright estimates that there may be as many as 70 different subtypes of dementia, including:

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  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy Body Dementia
  • Mixed type dementia
  • Mild cognitive impairment

The Alzheimer’s Association provides a comprehensive list of some of the more common dementias along with their varying symptoms.

When to See a Neurologist

Many people experience some changes in their thinking ability as they age. You can expect a little more difficulty recalling words and you may find that you’re less able to multi-task or that you need a little longer to think through tasks and challenges. You might lose your keys, but you’ll still be able to retrace your steps or think of likely places to find them again.

Generally, these normal changes do not interfere with your daily life or relationships. Signs that your memory and cognition are changing more than expected include difficulty knowing where you are or what day it is, problems remembering your own life history, changing mood and behavior, new difficulty with numbers and calculations, and disorientation.

If you or the people around you are worried about your memory and thinking, ask your doctor for a referral to a neurologist who specializes in dementia, advises dementia social worker Elizabeth Spaulding, LICSW, who serves as an Alzheimer’s Team Leaders with Norwell VNA and Hospice, and as facilitator of a dementia support group in Plymouth, Mass.. A neurologist is a health care provider who specializes in the brain, and can help you determine which type of dementia, if any, you might have.

A neurologist will give you tests of memory, thinking abilities, and movement, as well as talk to other people in your household about your symptoms or behaviors.

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“Often it is best if the person who suspects cognitive changes allows someone else to accompany them to these appointments,” says Reynolds. Choose someone who is with you a lot, and has known you a while. Their observations of any changes in your memory and behavior will be helpful to a doctor who is evaluating you.

This can be a scary process, but it’s important, says Spaulding.

“Information is power,” she emphasizes. “If you want the best outcome, families need information and education.”

Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Trials

Finally, Reynolds encourages older adults who are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease to join clinical trials. There are many, such as the A4study, which need healthy adults over age 65 who are willing to participate in testing medications that could prevent or slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. You can also visit to research clinical trials for which you might be eligible or the Brain Health Registry, a program that uses brain games to gauge changes in participants' brain health over time and connects participants with relevant clinical trials.