Many people do not understand the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia. In popular culture, many myths surround these cognitive conditions. This lack of clarity leaves people with more questions than answers, and breeds confusion. Why do some people develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia—and what’s the difference between them, anyway? Arm yourself with knowledge, and get the facts about the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Myth: Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are different names for the same thing.
Alzheimer’s disease isn’t a synonym for dementia, but rather, is one of many different types of dementia. Dementia is a broad, umbrella-like term that encompasses a specific set of actions and thought patterns that are considered out of the ordinary. Cognitive changes such as a decline in the ability to remember things and behavioral changes such as lashing out at loved ones and acting in erratic ways can indicate dementia, particularly in individuals of advanced age.i Dementia can also indicate another, underlying problem such as a severe vitamin depletion or even a stroke.
How can Alzheimer’s disease be differentiated from other types of dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease may be the most well-known and talked-about form of dementia, but as many as 40 percent of dementia patients are living with a type of dementia that is not Alzheimer’s.ii While all forms of dementia share certain characteristics (such as decline in the ability to think clearly, impaired memory consolidation, and often changes to personality and mood), each type of dementia can also be differentiated from the others, as each has its own traits that make it unique.iii
Alzheimer’s disease is a permanent medical condition, often diagnosed in elderly individuals (although early-onset Alzheimer’s is also sometimes seen). Neurotransmission of brain chemicals called acetylcholine and glutamate is impacted by protein deposits and deformities, leading to the death of brain cells. This cell death is suspected of being behind the changes to memory that is often the first symptom of Alzheimer’s, as cell death in the areas of the brain dealing with memory are common with this disease.
People with Parkinson’s disease—a condition whose hallmark is movement disorder—can also develop dementia. Like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s-related dementia involves abnormal protein deposits affecting neuronal communication within the brain that can lead to neuronal atrophy. However, the types and locations of these protein deposits differ between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. As well as experiencing memory problems, people with Parkinson’s-related dementia may also complain of difficulty sleeping or staying asleep and may experience problems with their ability to walk before any memory loss is even noticed.
This form is dementia is unique in that it is caused by suffering a stroke, and the symptoms usually involve a loss of executive functioning. The ability to make decisions, plan or organize (either thoughts or tangible objects) can be difficult, and may be more prominent in individuals with vascular dementia than in patients with other forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Blood vessel problems caused by a stroke are thought to be the cause behind vascular dementia, giving it its name.
Vitamin deficiency-related dementia
Some types of dementia are caused by malnutrition or vitamin deficiency. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, for example, can sometimes lead to the development of dementia, and it is caused by an extreme depletion of vitamin B1, or thiamine. This thiamine depletion is most commonly associated with alcoholism, and is characterized by noteworthy memory impairment, with executive functioning skills (like planning, etc.) and even social skills remaining intact. Alcohol abstinence and thiamine supplementation can sometimes help to reverse the effects of this particular type of vitamin deficiency-related dementia.
Like Parkinson’s-related dementia, Huntington’s-related dementia is associated with a disease whose best-known characteristic is a disorder of movement. Huntington’s-related dementia can manifest in ways that are similar to vascular dementia, such as difficulty with planning and decision-making. It can also manifest in ways that are similar to Alzheimer’s disease, with mood and personality changes (such as irritability and outbursts of anger toward loved ones) being possible. Huntington’s disease is caused by a chromosomal mutation and, like Alzheimer’s disease, is considered incurable and irreversible.
Pick’s disease is a type of dementia that typically involves linguistic issues, or difficulties with speaking and understanding language. It can also result in marked changes to the way an afflicted person acts due to the way it can alter personality. The neurons in the frontal lobes and temporal lobes are most affected by this form of dementia, as opposed to the hippocampal damage seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Sometimes colloquially referred to as being “ punch drunk” or having “ boxer’s brain,” pugilistic dementia is caused by traumatic head injury and has historically been associated with fighters. Repeated head trauma can lead to repeated brain injury, and it is this repeated trauma to the brain tissue that is thought to cause pugilistic dementia. This type of dementia is associated with both memory impairment and difficulty with executive functioning, as well as the personality and mood changes that characterize other dementia types.
Mixed dementia is so named because it comes about when the person’s dementia has more than one (and possibly even several) potential causes. For example, a person with Alzheimer’s disease may have a stroke and exhibit the symptoms of both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Someone with severe alcoholism might have a chromosomal mutation that later leads to the development of Huntington’s disease, but because the resulting dementia could have been pinned onto two causes, the person is considered to have “ mixed dementia.” As more research emerges, mixed dementia is considered to be the possible cause of many cases of dementia that would have previously been attributed to only one cause.
Myth: There is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Although Alzheimer’s disease has no cure,iv there are many treatment options available to help ease the symptoms and slow the progression of the illness. Acetylcholinesterase inhibition drugs are the front-line treatment used to reduce memory impairment in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,v and treatment with B vitamins can slow neuronal atrophy and death.vi Even insulin, so often associated with diabetes management, has been shown to improve signaling in the hippocampus (or “ memory center” ) of the Alzheimer’s brain.vii While Alzheimer’s cannot be cured or make a reversal as is possible with certain other forms of dementia, some of its symptoms can be treated with medications—and new research is constantly being conducted to find establish the most effective and patient-friendly treatment protocols.viii
Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can be managed.
Through competent medical care and careful monitoring, dementia can often be managed in a way that allows the person with the disease to retain (and sometimes, even regain) their quality of life. With medication use and the help of in-home health aides or assisted living facilities, it’s possible for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia to live safely and with reasonably good health for years after being diagnosed.