Is dementia the same as Alzheimer's?

21 answers | Last updated: Mar 28, 2016
Bridget asked...

Are Alzheimer's and dementia basically the same thing?

Expert Answers

Paula Spencer Scott, contributing editor, is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's. A Met Life Foundation Journalists in Aging fellow, she writes extensively about health and caregiving; four of her family members have had dementia.

Not exactly. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. Dementia is not a disease; it's a set of symptoms that affect daily functioning (such as memory loss and changes in abstract reasoning and attention) caused by deterioration in the brain. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably, often by those who find "Alzheimer's" to be a stigmatizing word. But technically they are not the same thing.

Dementia is the broader, umbrella term; there are many different causes of dementia (disorders that feature dementia): vascular dementia; Parkinson's Disease dementia; Lewy Body Dementia; frontotemporal dementia. Alzheimer's is just one type of dementia. Dementia can also feature in other brain disorders such as Huntington's Disease and AIDS.

SEE ALSO: Find Memory Care Near You

Community Answers

Lindasd answered...

How do you know if the Alzheimer's diagnosis is accurate? My mother's internal doctor says Alzheimer's (set of questions she can't answer) but her heart doctor says the dementia is from her diabetes and heart problems.

I've been taking care of her for 10 years now and there have been no special test other than asking questions. The medication Aricept is very expensive and seems to have to affect. If the diagnosis is in question, how does the doctor know the medication is right? What kinds of test should be done to rule out other forms of dementia or are there any tests?

Srcheryl answered...

I don't have any answer but am anxious to hear if anyone else does....

Lindasd answered...

I recently read an article that Social Security is fast tracking disability claims for early onset (younger ages) disability claims for Alzheimer's. I'm curious after seeing what kind of diagnosis my father and mother got (a set of memory questions) how does social security set rules for such disability. So if I can't answer the doctor's set of questions and can't work because I can someone show I can't think, then I would qualify for disability? Seems very odd. Any other comments on diagnosis?

Frena answered...

i'm a 20-year Alzheimer's caregiver and the author of 5 books on dementia caregiving, based on hands-on experience, reading the literature and observation of real people with dementia.

Here's what we need to pay attention to:

  1. there is NO marker for Alzheimers's disease. Plaques and tangles occur in every aging brain, including in people with no dementia.

  2. some other dementias have markers -- vascular dementia, Lewys Body, Korsakoff's syndrome and so on -- but not Alzheimer's.

  3. There are also dementias related to other conditions -- from dying to medication issues, with no names attached to them.

  4. Dr Alzheimer actually studied pre-senile dementia -- that is dementia in people aged under 60. His hallmark case was an woman who died at 51;

  5. while we use the name Alzheimer's today extremely often, there is as yet no actual proof that the dementia we see is Alzheimer's dementia.

I just think it is important to know and acknowledge that, instead of over-using an undemonstrated and unproven term. In my work, I see that caregiver and families do much better with the term dementia, which is at least demonstrable, than Alzheimer's which actually is not. So, why the big push on unproven Alzheimer's? And remember, there is NO proof of Alzheimer's. The so-called Alzheimer's work-up is actually a workup to see if other causes can be established

So, let's get that proof before using the term, not the other way round. Meanwhile, let's all learn how to do dementia care -- and that is easier than you think. There are a set of skills that caregivers can acquire and they're not hard to acquire. The hard thing is to learn how to put our own care into the care plan. instead of putting ourselves last.

Working mom answered...

Having a husband with dementia for 6 years, I have noticed a gradual decline in his abilities to do most anything. He still functions in daily routines such as getting showered & dressed on his own. He need reminders to eat & take his medicines, but he does seem to have a routine that has to remain the same every day. Any changes to that routine seems to upset the whole day. I have become used to the same questions being asked every 10 minutes. I feel the stigma attached to any form of dementia is very real. It is hard to explain to anyone even family members that question his abilities. People that have not been with a person with any form of dementia don't seem to understand that there are many forms of dementia. My husband has no short term memory. I am not sure there is a specfic name to this form of dementia, but I do not feel it is the same as someone that does not recognize familiar faces and can not verbalize their feelings.

Lucci answered...

Frena's statement was very interesting. But what are the tests to prove Alzheimers? I use the term dementia for the most part. My husband takes Aricept, except for the past month, he fell into the donut hole and with all the other med's I couldn't afford the aricept. I asked for samples to get me through and the doctors response was that he didn't have any any but not to worry, it was not a life and death medication. When the doctor tested him with the question and answer thing, he had improved after 6 months on aricept. I'm finding it very hard and draining with the same questions being asked over and over sometimes only 3 or 4 minutes apart and the hallucinating is another thing. I'm trying very hard.

Jayr76 answered...

I personally believe the word "Alzheimers" seems to scare folks more than dementia. My wife was primarily diagnosed by doctors at Shands Hospital with having cerebrovascular disease with a secondary diagnosis of senile dementia. She was 78 years old at the time. She had had mini-stroke at age 75 and I could see some gradual decline after. She's now 80 years old; under home hospice care and determined to be in the end-stage of life.
My wife had been prescribed Aricept, then Namenda. Since these meds will not improve one's mental state; in my non-medical opinion, they do nothing to maintain the status quo either, so to speak. My wife continues to decline; no longer eats solid food (now has a G-tube); no longer speaks and can do nothing for herself. I am convinced she has now left me mentally; only her <48# body shell remains here.

Marimom answered...

Tp the question about "test" re aracept: my husband was diagnosed with cerebral vascular dementia almost two years ago. The diagnosis, after days of testing, was confirmed with an MRI which showed a spot in his brain (don't know where) which cut off the flow of blood and affected his executive abilities (abiity to figure out how to do things and then to do them, I believe) He's been on Aracept, Namenda, many supplements including COQ10, D, B, multi, E and more. The good news is that he doesnt' appear to be getting any worse, and in fact, I think he's improving a bit. Perhaps I'm getting used to the situation, I realize. The unanswered question was the cause...head injury some 10 years ago, age (78), TIA's, result of anesthesia (surgery) three months before symptoms appeared, at least noticeable ones.

Not much of a help, I'm sure, but I'm encouraged. I also make every effort in the world to make him do things for himself. (e.g. making a calendar so he'll try), "clock" on the wall with days of the week instead of time, sendcing on errands to the store with lists to follow, on and on. We're retired and older, so I can do more of these things than a younger person could, but it's worth the effort. Good luck, and be encouraged.

Frena answered...

well, Lucci, your questions is actually the point here: there ARE no tests to prove Alzheimer's. In fact, a recent article on this site detailed how forensic investigation into the brains of 211 people diagnosed with a dementia of the Alzheimer's type (DAT) showed that 50 percent of those brains had NO signs of plaques and tangles (considered to be the only sure sign of alzheimer's).

closely involved with the alzheimer's world for about 25 years now, i'd say that alzheimer's itself is one of the least provable menifestations of dementia. it's just become a useful dark name to scare up contributions to the Alzheimer's Association and make prescription medications.

and, yes,JayR76, you are very right. people are terrified of alzheimer's (and that's what happens when you try too many bad ways to scare up contributions) and do much better with the word dementia, which after all is much more accurately used than the term alzheimer's.

in my workshops, i just say: remember, all alzheimer's is dementia but by no means all dementia is alzheimer's. in fact, as far as i see, less and less dementia is alzheimer's.

as Paula said, "dementia" is both a general description of observed symptoms (short-term memory issues, cognitive failures and so on) and also used in specific condition names -- vascular dementia, Lewy Body. that makes it confusing for everyone.

just to help out, there are about 50 different dementias of old age, plus dementia behavior can arise out of many other health conditions.

so, that's why we're all confused about everything in the dementia world.

Lvkdra answered...

I was recently reading that coconut oils may help with cognitive impairments. That MCT type fats help with the impaired brain metabolisms. They are less capable of using the glucose that they used to use and need to make use of other nourishment that can get into the cells.

Frena answered...

nice report, Lvkdra, and we should all read whatever we can on things supposed to help the brain function because, unless they are some patented highly-expensive concoction, there are lots of helper things:

i'd suggest: look into herbals; homeopathy, vitamins, brain-supporting nutrients like omega 3 (found in salmon and other oily fish) and always remember the good substances in food are best eaten as food. extracted into non-food supplements - research is starting to show they simply aren't as helpful and may even cause problems to which i say "Well, DUH, yaaa!"

since no real answers have emerged in treatments, all our well-founded observations are valuable. we are the truth-finders here because it hasn't yet come from medicine. so try it and share the results with all of us!

onward and upward, caregivers all!

Drseuss answered...

I prefer to use the term "cognitive decline."

A fellow caregiver answered...

My husband was diagnosed with dementia after a severe decrease in his B-12 levels a few years ago. He now takes namenda and the exelon patch. He seems to remain stable unless he gets ill then his memory goes out the window. Otherwise, we maintain a reasonable status quo where he can maintain a fairly normal day to day schedule as long as we stay on schedule as was mentioned above. He is able to take care of himself as long as there are no crisis but is unable to do any type of driving or take care of any type of business decisions or bill paying. He is usually fairly healthy and happy.

As far as the testing goes, our Dr told me that the only way to know for sure was to test their brains after they had passed away. A little too late for me and mine I think.

Dls57 answered...

I'm not quite sure now, but I understand Dementia is really an umbrella for the many types of illnesses of severe memory loss.

Curiousmm answered...

I am reading all these posts with great interest and wonder how old they are as I can't see a date. Also am very interested in alternative/natural remedies. My Mum is in a nursing home where of course her medication is dispensed by the nursing staff. She is not on any treatment and has only had the memory test. How would they view anything I could find to help my Mum?

Frena answered...

a memeory test, if it's the mini-mental (a short series of questions and a couple of diagrams to draw), says almost nothing useful. it says, hm, some memory issues here. then the full alzheimer's workup is needed. mri, cat scan, blood tests and a whole bunch more, plus extensive family health history, personal history and so on. and it's usually a couple of days, or more, but well worth it since about 15 to 20 percent of people showing dementia actually have a fixable issue, or even completely curable. a great idea to read about alternative and natural remedies and many doctors will approve them if you ask. then you just get them and inform staff her doctor says she can have this (and if a doctor wouldn't, personally i'd change doctors). just don't fall for the rackets -- if it cures everything, and is expensive to buy, it's a ripoff. and dls57, you're absolutely right, dementia is indeed an umbrella term. and diagnosis is often faulty, that's why we all have to observe, make notes and speak up when accurate diagnosis may not have been done.

Curiousmm answered...

Thank you very much Frena. Mum had two of those mini test a few weeks apart and scored much less on the second test. I answered the family health history as she couldn't remember. They felt they did not want to put her through a cat scan etc at 86. They said "Dementia" which was why I was interested in the original question by Bridget "Are Alzheimer's and dementia basically the same thing?" I found this forum when I Googled that same question so this is my first visit. Regarding alternative and natural remedies I would like to find something which would help. Psychiatric nurses who tested her said "No" there is nothing and they would not approve.

Marimom answered...

Three doctors for my husband ( " cerebral vascular demantia...thoroughly diagnosed)have all recommended /supplements, most notably fish oil ( omega 3) vitamin d ( he was deficient), and coq 10. He also does not produce iron, so takes great amounts of that ( don't do without blood tests). Iron def. Causes memory problems..sometimes I wonder at all this stuff I have to remember !!! It's neat, tho' to be able tonread the comments of others; " encouraging would be a better word choice....thanks.

Curiousmm answered...

Hi Marimom

Mum is getting Folic acid after a blood test and I was giving her Omega 3 at home. If your doctors all recommended the supplements you mention for your husband, I am encouraged that the Care Home would have no objection if her doctor agrees. Am still investigating other things as well.

A fellow caregiver answered...

My mother in law had an issue where her dementia got markedly worse recently and she had a terrible UTI. Many elderly women have UTI and no symptoms except severe dementia.

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