What's the difference between schizophrenia and Alzheimer's?

26 answers | Last updated: Nov 05, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the difference between schizophrenia and Alzheimer's? I'm seeing some of the same symptoms, and am getting very scared.


Expert Answers

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of Caring.com. He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s Disease are both diseases of the brain that can cause dramatic symptoms. They are different in many ways, but there are some similarities. Both can be associated with psychotic symptoms. That is, they can include hallucinations or delusions. Hallucinations are false sensory perceptions, which can involve someone believing they are seeing things, hearing things, touching things, or smelling things, but these perceptions are not real. Delusions are fixed false beliefs, such as someone believing they are being followed, believing they are not human or believing they have a terminal illness, though there is nothing to support the accuracy of the beliefs. Furthermore, both diseases can interfere with thinking, as will be discussed below. Their differences, however, are far greater than their shared features.

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is the cause of about two thirds of dementia in this country. This is a disease that only rarely manifest itself before age 65. By the time people reach age 85, about 40% of people in this country can be diagnosed with this disease. Alzheimer’s Disease destroys brain cells and as a result, it causes progressive problems with memory and other cognitive functions. For example, it can cause problems with spatial orientation, reasoning, abstract thinking, language and planning. As it gets worse, it causes problems with social functioning, hobbies, work and even with performing activities of daily living. There are many psychological difficulties that are experienced by people with this disease. Depression is very common, especially early in the course of Alzheimer’s Disease. People can also become anxious, agitated, aggressive and psychotic as the illness progresses. These associated psychiatric difficulties can be treated, but unfortunately we do not know how the treat the pathologic process that causes this disease. There is a class of medications called cognitive enhancers that can slow the disease process, but only by months rather than years.

Schizophrenia is a psychotic illness that generally becomes manifest between the late teens and the early 30’s. The symptoms of schizophrenia include hallucinations and delusions, as well as difficulty organizing thoughts. Symptoms can also include a decrease in the ability to show or express emotion and problems with particular cognitive functions. These functions can include problems with attention, planning and organizing thoughts, and can include problems being able to use recently learned information. This loss of accessing recent memories is a relatively small part of the illness, whereas with Alzheimer's Disease, memory problems are fundamental to the illness. Fortunately, with schizophrenia we have medications that can treat the illness and markedly reduce the symptoms.


Community Answers

Mad127d@aol.com answered...

I have no degree but behaviorally at least they seem to have alot in common, don't they.  God this is so hard today.  God Bless us all.


A fellow caregiver answered...

The answer given by the physician was not good enough.

Differences

All I can see so far is the short term memory is different is better for the Alzheimer patient. Short term memory is a problem with schizophrenia. What else is different?


Rhondabonda answered...

My mother has Alzheimer's and lives with us (we're on year seven). I am responsible for her care. Our son was just hospitalized with what they think is Schizophrenia. My husband and I see some similarities in the way both my mother and son reason. There seems to be some similarity in the fact that they both have difficulty not only with reasoning, but everyday tasks. I know that in Alzheimer's the brain has plaque growth, but does this occur with Schizophrenia? My son is not the same as he was several years ago. He began having difficulty with normal adult life (jobs, taking care of his room, self, etc.) right after he graduated from college. He has been seeing an orthomolecular physician who has prescribed mega doses of vitamins and he also is supposed to use a CPAP machine for breathing at night. If he misses his medication or vitamins or the breathing machine, there is a noticable difference in his capabilities. He is employed and supports himself, which is a huge step in the right direction as he stumbled through life for five years before we realized exactly what was wrong. If anyone else has any insight as to how to help him (or my mother), I'd love to hear it. Thanks! Rhondabonda


Emily m. answered...

Hi Rhondabonda,

Thanks for your question. Sorry to hear about your son's and mother's diagnosis. That's a tough situation! To answer your first question, there are no plaque growths in schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is thought to be caused primarily by a dopamin imbalance in the brain.

We have a few articles about schizophrenia that you may find helpful here: https://www.caring.com/schizophrenia

I hope that helps!

-Emily


A fellow caregiver answered...

mY HUSBAND HAS BEEN DIAGNOSED WITH MODERATE TO SEVER DEMETIA...hE IS N AN INSISTED LIVING HOME NOT FAR FROM ME. hOW DO i KEEP HIM FROM ALWAYS WANTIN TO COME HOME WHERE THE DOCTORS SAY HE IS NOT SAFE


Emily m. answered...

Hi anonymous, thank you for your question. If you'd like, you can post new a question in our Ask & Answer section, here ( https://www.caring.com/ask ). I hope that helps! Take care, Emily | Community Manager


Illawarrian answered...

Dealing with my mother who has Alzheimers seems no different from dealing with acquaintances I've known over the years with schizophrenia. I read all these innocuous descriptions of Alzheimers - memory loss, confusion, inability to complete tasks, trouble dressing self - and I think, this is nowhere near the true picture. I'd call it a dishonest description of the disease, designed not to alarm potential caregivers with the terrible truth. I am having to put up with my mother's hallucinations, false beliefs, extreme paranoia, imaginary stalkers, anger and threatened violence. She tried to break a window tonight because I wouldn't unlock the door and let her out to rescue a cat she imagined was screaming. Then she started accusing me of throwing the cat out onto the road to be killed. She is quite mad and a danger to herself and everyone else. I'm not mincing words here, my mother is insane. Dehumanising terminology maybe, but the simple truth. For months I have tried all manner of natural therapies and exercise while things continue to deteriorate and I am nearly out of my mind. And by the way, her memory isn't bad at all, she can dress herself, make breakfast, remembers all friends and relatives and goes walking without getting lost. Don't you try and tell me Alzheimers is about memory loss. Time for the heavy-duty drugs.


A fellow caregiver answered...

Your experience with Alzheimers &your mom is exactly what I am going through with my mom now. We as a country better deal with this disease and soon....I am a baby boomer & worry about the immense cost to our economy, our health care system, and our family structure as millions of us develop dementia & Alzheimers in the near future!


A fellow caregiver answered...

illawarrian it sounds very much like you mom has schizophrenia. please get this checked out soon. there are a lot of drugs that can help her and she can lead a fairly normal life, like my mom.


Blazer97 answered...

the cause of both is usually b12/b3 deficiency. the lower test limits should be 600, not 200.


Linked answered...

My mother has Alzheimer's (onset age 55) and my son has schizophrenia (onset age 21). I understand that Alzheimer's has a link with plaque and schizophrenia appears to be dopamine related. Both diseases appear to affect the exact same part of the brain, no matter the cause. If I were a research scientist, I would explore the connection. There is no history of mental illness on either side of the family. There is a definite history of Alzheimer's. I truly believe there is a connection but of course I keep reading that there isn't. We are struggling, but it is what it is. We must move forward trying to help my mom live a 'comfortable' rest of her life and trying to help my son live a 'stable' life. And hopefully science will help the next generation.


Illawarrian answered...

Linked I believe you are spot on. Alzheimers causes schizophrenia. There is no schizophrenia in my family and my mother never had it before the age of 85 but she has schizophrenia now and is on antipsychotic medication, which is working well. I definitely believe these two diseases are somehow linked. Since people can have plaque and no Alzheimers I believe they are barking up the wrong tree with the plaque theory.


Danajoyce answered...

I agree that there is a "link" between the Schizophrenia and Alzheimers! My Mother (87) has suffered from schizophrenia for years... though never would go to a Doctor to get and "official" diagnoses. I am now her legal Guardian and have her in a skilled nursing home and the staff calls her mental problem Alzheimers .... Maybe the symptoms appear to overlap but we who lived with her know she was delusional and paranoid for years. She also had a Sister who was diagnosed as well. She is on an antipsychotic now. I wish it were easier to distinguish the difference .... the present medical community is very lacking in targeting and treating both.


Illawarrian answered...

We've finally found an antipsychotic that works for Mum. She's in a nursing home, now 88 years old. She's a lot calmer. She never had psychotic episodes until the Alzheimers took hold. Maybe some people get schizophrenia with the Alzheimers for some reason. Researchers should be looking at the link.


Bethfa answered...

Anyone caring for a loved one with dementia or alzheimers and who is also showing signs of schizophrenia may want to look into the possibility that it is actually a form of dementia called Lewy Body Dementia and not alzheimers. Another symptom of this form of dementia is parkinson.


Helen57 answered...

I read a study in a medical journal a few years ago. Both Alzeimers and Schozophrenia brains have a substance the researcher named "reelin" because when mice are given the cells they move like they are dancing. As of about 5 years ago they didn't know anything about the chemical( was it the cause or effect of the disease? All I know is my mother in law and her father both died of Alzeimers and my husband has a nephew that is schizophrenic. There is definitely a genetic component but the research about the connection between the two diseases has just begun


Mark61 answered...

My brother has Schizophrenia but refuses to admit it so he wont seek help.He is in his mid 50's and from what he has told me he started hearing things in his late forties. He still believes that just because no body else can see or hear the things he does that doesn't mean they are not real. My mother who lives with me now and has for 2 years has Dementia. She sees people that aren't there tells me stories of things that have never happened and talks about many different things at once to name a few. It scares the heck out of me thinking I may be next and my kids will have to see me like that instead of the man I am now. Blazer97 it would be nice if it was that simple. I am not saying that does not contribute to the problem but so does a host of prescribed drugs so many people take. The poor diet given to us through the food industry. The chemicals we kill weeds with and feed our lawns with that get into our drinking water. The vaccinations that are pushed on us. Until we humans clean up our planet and stop looking for a pill to cure the side effects of what we do to it this problem will continue to get worse.


Illawarrian answered...

Mark, we are all terrified that we will be next go have dementia and our kids will have to see us like that. It's very unusual to get schizophrenia in your late 40s. Are you sure he hasn't got a brain tumour or some other problem?


Mark61 answered...

Illawarrian I believe my brother became schizophrenic from taking drugs most of his life.


Illawarrian answered...

That's a shame.


Cliff89 answered...

The outlook for the mentally ill patient without drugs is better pre-2012/2013 I'd say for the schizophrenic


A fellow caregiver answered...

I cant answer specific posts. This whole discussion is helpful. I have a relative who cut herself off from all contact for years and phoned me out of the blue. (age 77). The first conversation demonstrated she had dementia, ie relative still alive, and what followed in subsequent weeks altered my perception that she has paranoid schizophrenia which was always suspected but kept under control most of the time. So past history was Episodic and only known (or suspected) by close family members, but with a difference insofar it began in childhood and in later years appears after loss of a family member or stress. This is somewhat confusing until I asked Dr Google "can Dementia coexist with Paranoid Schizophrenia" and came to this site. It will be impossible to get any intervention, as her paranoia is about people believing she is a mad woman and plotting against her and her belief that she still has a sharp mind. Distance is also a problem so no face to face contact. What I would like to know is why the behaviours were so apparent in childhood with acute aggression and extreme violence when P.S. has a specific age group for onset of symptoms . I believe the control of the PS is handled by distancing herself from people.


A fellow caregiver answered...

My husband is a paranoid schizophrenic and his mother had early onset Alzheimer's. I remember that they, my husband and his mother, had a very sick relationship. She was always asking him "Do you love me?" Over and over. He would reply that he did. He still tries to play this game with me but I am unresponsive. I have only been able to deal with him by meditating with the fhu.com meditation which is Judeo-Christian. Both my husband and his mother are Jewish and I think this might be a contributing factor genetically speaking. But there is definitely a link between the Alzheimer's and the schizophrenia. I had another Jewish girlfriend who had a terrible time with her mother as you have described above and during her 80's was really off the charts and crazy, calling the police on her daughter (caregiver) etc. hallucinating. In this case the schizophrenia went to the daughter who had her own problems with mental disease, but was otherwise pretty sharp in many ways.


A fellow caregiver answered...

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, dementia, and paranoid schizophrenia at the same time, and as three distinct disorders. She was only 69 when she started really showing symptoms. Part of her delusions include an inability to walk, which was treated for years as arthritis, which she never had. (She is a polio survivor, however, but was miraculously able to walk all of her life.) Her symptoms started out so innocuously--a lost false tooth, letting my dog get to chocolate, not bathing my son when he was little and spending a week with her while I was away on business, or going to see my son in a play and spending the whole play rifling through her purse. She then progressed to an obsession with Barry Manilow, and then, one night when we were all out for dinner, she casually mentioned seeing a puppy come through the door. Within months, she was living in a world of horrific hallucinations of animal abuse, animals eating each other, talking to dead relatives, and seeing her caregivers and television news anchors as her daughters. Then she became violent, accusing my father of having an affair. It was only then that she was diagnosed. She also insisted that she had moved to a different house, and, that to fool her, movers had come during the night and placed all her belongings in the new house in exactly the same spots as her old house. Yet she has no trouble with the concept of time, and she remembers who everybody is.

We definitely have a history of dementia and mental illness in my family--all of my relatives had it (though at MUCH more advanced ages), her brother is also schizophrenic, and her grandmother died in an insane asylum in the 1940s with symptoms my mother had described to me when I was young that match her own to a tee.

And here I am, 53 years old, and I think, how much time do I have left? What will be the first sign in me? Or has it already happened? Was it that misplaced earring or forgotten name? And what about my son? At 17, will he start hearing voices soon? It's a terrifying way to live.


Cfwing answered...

No, you don't have to condemn yourself to one day inheriting mental illness. My mother is 87 and has had schizophrenia my entire life. There are six of us children. She was diagnosed sometime during or immediately after her child bearing ended (30ish). None of us have the illness, but two have depression. One wants to rail at God for this terrible illness. Yet when I read your stories I think you are so brave.and I knew as child my mother was good and it wasn't something she asked for. She had been what is called a " high functioning" schizoprenic living on her own in section 8 housing with visits from her children a few times a year for 45 years. She is smart, funny, and highly spatial, remembering streets and having a mental map of the metropolitan city even though she hasn't driving for years. She is failing in health and recently tried committing suicide which landed her in a hospital and then nursing care for 3 months and now we are struggling to find a place for her to live. Bless you all, caregivers, children, parents. It is a hard road that was paved for us and I hope we continue to find drugs and or vitamins and other therapies that help people who live these tortured lives be more at peace.