Alzheimer's disease and dementia aren't terms that can be used interchangeably. Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia, but not all forms of dementia are considered Alzheimer's disease. Rather than being a specific disease, dementia describes a certain set of symptoms. These symptoms impact day-to-day functioning, the ability to communicate, and overall memory. There are multiple types of dementia that have been identified, with Alzheimer's disease being the most common. Dementia can also manifest as a symptom of other conditions.
The symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer's disease have a strong overlap, but it's important to distinguish between them for proper treatment. Different types of dementia are treated differently, and the approach to Alzheimer's treatment is different from many other conditions because it's a progressive disease.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia, as stated, refers to a set of symptoms from disorders that affect the brain. The main overarching component of dementia-related symptoms is that cognitive functioning is impaired. This means the way an affected individual processes, categorizes, and recalls information is compromised. Dementia patients may have trouble with both their short-term and long-term memory. They may become confused about where they are, what they're doing, what time it is, and who the people around them are.
Reasoning can also be impaired due to dementia. It might be difficult to solve problems or fully complete tasks. Some individuals have multiple types of dementia at once, which is referred to as mixed dementia. Individuals with mixed dementia may have several conditions that contribute to their dementia. Mixed dementia, unfortunately, can only be diagnostically confirmed during an autopsy. Progressive dementia, which means the condition worsens over time, has a significant impact on a patient's ability to live alone and function in day-to-day life.
What Is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease is a definitive disease that causes the collection of symptoms known as dementia. Not every type of dementia is progressive, but Alzheimer's disease is. Alzheimer's disease progresses slowly and causes cognitive function and memory to become increasingly more impaired. Researchers are still trying to determine the cause, and there's no cure right now. Over five million individuals in the United States currently have Alzheimer's disease. Younger individuals can get it, in which case the diagnosis is early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
However, the majority of individuals don't exhibit symptoms until after they are sixty years old. When an individual develops the disease after they are eighty years old, the time from diagnosis until death can shorten to only three years. But younger individuals often live much longer following their diagnosis. Alzheimer's disease causes brain damage for years before the onset of visible symptoms. The condition causes abnormal deposits of protein to create plaques within the brain. This causes cell connections to break, and the cells slowly die.
Similarities and Differences in Symptoms
There are several similarities and differences in symptoms between the two conditions. Alzheimer's disease has all the symptoms of dementia, but it also has additional criteria of its own. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease can both lead to impaired communication, impaired memory, and improved cognitive function and problem-solving capacity. Additional Alzheimer's disease symptoms include depression, apathy, disorientation, impaired judgment, and difficulty with remembering recent conversations or events. Dementia doesn't typically impair short-term memory, since short-term memory is stored and recalled differently from long-term memory. Dementia also doesn't cause emotional symptoms like depression and apathy. Alzheimer's disease causes these symptoms because of progressive damage to the emotional processing parts of the brain.
Other types of dementia may not include emotional involvement and short-term memory impairment. Alzheimer's disease patients may also experience behavioral changes and confusion that aren't part of the overarching dementia umbrella. In the later stages of the illness, Alzheimer's disease can make it difficult to walk, swallow, and speak. The type of dementia an individual has is diagnosed by evaluating these non-dementia symptoms to see what diagnosis fits best.
Treatment Options Available
Many cases of dementia aren't reversible, but many types of dementia can be treated. If dementia is caused by hypoglycemia, metabolic disorders, tumors, or drugs, some treatments may be able to remove or cure the underlying cause. Dementia due to Parkinson's disease can be treated with cholinesterase inhibitors, which are also used in Alzheimer's disease treatment. Treatments for Alzheimer's disease and dementia can often overlap. Alzheimer's is a form of dementia that can't be cured, but there are multiple treatments available for symptom management.
Behavioral changes can be improved and managed with medication, and there are also medications to help improve memory and mitigate the effects of memory loss. Dietary supplements like fish oil and coconut oil may be used to improve brain function and general health. Depression and insomnia associated with Alzheimer's disease can be treated with medication.
The patient outlook for Alzheimer's disease is fairly well-defined, while the outlook for dementia is incredibly varied. Patients with dementia will have different outlooks depending on the type of dementia they have, the damage it has done, whether the progression can be halted, and whether the effects are reversible. Parkinson's disease causes treatable dementia, but researchers don't yet know a way to slow or stop the progression. The same is true for Alzheimer's disease. Vascular dementia can sometimes be slowed, but it can't fully be stopped, and individuals with vascular dementia still have a shortened lifespan.
There are some reversible types of dementia, but the majority of cases aren't reversible and also get progressively worse over time. Alzheimer's disease is terminal and doesn't have a cure right now. The average lifespan after diagnosis is between four and eight years. Individuals diagnosed after eighty don't tend to live as long. Some individuals have lived up to twenty years following their diagnosis. If individuals are concerned they or a loved one may have dementia, they should talk to a doctor.