Dementia vs. Alzheimer's Disease---What's the difference?


What's the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's Disease? Does a diagnosis of dementia symptoms indicate that Alzheimer's is present or will develop?


Any of us with older parents has certainly noticed at one time or another certain symptoms that has us wondering, "Could this be dementia or maybe Alzheimer's setting in?" The terms are often used interchangeably but in reality there are differences.


Alzheimer's Disease is just one of several causes of dementia. In other words, all patients with Alzheimer's disease have dementia while all dementia patients do NOT have Alzheimer's disease.


The term "dementia" actually refers to a group of symptoms such as short-term memory loss, poor judgment, difficulty performing familiar tasks, etc. Increasingly, I have noticed several of these symptoms in my own father. My sister recently noticed him becoming frustrated while trying to operate the same coffee maker that he has used every morning for years. He simply could not remember how to put it together. A trip to his physician and subsequent exam & testing revealed that his dementia symptoms were likely attributable to "Vascular Dementia" rather than Alzheimer's Disease.


What are the main causes of "dementia"?


1. Reversible causes of dementia include depression, vitamin deficiency, drugs and infections. Consult with your physician for testing to evaluate whether dementia symptoms may be reversed by treating an underlying condition or switching prescription medications.


2. The number one cause of irreversible dementia is Alzheimer's disease which is responsible for approximately 60% of all cases. Early symptoms include difficulty remembering names and recent events, apathy and depression. Later symptoms include confusion, disorientation, difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.


3. Another common cause of dementia is "Vascular Dementia", also called "Multi-Infarct Dementia". It develops when impaired blood flow to parts of the brain deprives cells of food and oxygen. This condition is most evident after a stroke blocks a blood vessel and disrupts blood flow to a significant portion of the brain. The patient with Vascular Dementia may have a history of heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, hardening of the arteries and other risk factors for heart disease. Symptoms may include: memory loss, reduced ability to carry out normal daily tasks, poor concentration and communication, confusion which is possibly worse at night. Vascular dementia is potentially reversible with improvement of underlying health conditions.


4. The third most common cause of dementia is Parkinson’s Disease. Not all Parkinson's patients develop dementia, but some will. This type of dementia usually develops in later stages of Parkinson's disease.


5. A less common cause of dementia is known as "Lewy bodies". Patients exhibiting this form of dementia have some of the symptoms common in Alzheimer's, but are more likely than people with Alzheimer's to have early symptoms such as sleep disturbances, hallucinations, and muscle rigidity. Patients with Lewy bodies type dementia may exhibit "Parkinson like" tremors.


All cases of suspected dementia should be evaluated by a Geriatric specialist for a proper diagnosis, treatment and follow-up.


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