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Is it Alzheimer’s Disease, or is it Dementia?

The terms can be confusing. But Alzheimer’s and dementia are not two different diseases. Dementia, in fact, is not a disease at all, but a syndrome, which means a collection of symptoms: trouble with memory, language, visual perception, and the ability to focus that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia can also include personality and mood changes and even hallucinations. The clearest way to understand the two terms is to say that Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes the symptom of dementia.


What causes dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting from 60 to 80% of all cases. But there is also vascular dementia, which is caused by blocked arteries that impede the brain’s supply of blood. Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia can be hard to tell apart from symptoms alone, and in fact they often exist together. But one difference may be that Alzheimer’s disease tends to show itself in the beginning by causing memory loss, while vascular dementia, in the early stages, tends to lead to trouble planning and making decisions. 

Other possible causes of dementia include Lewy body dementia, which, like Alzheimer’s, involves the build-up of toxic substances in the brain that interfere with the neurons’ communication with each other. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Huntington’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease can also cause dementia. 

Is it important to know the cause?

Yes! First of all, some conditions that cause dementia can actually be reversed—like vitamin deficiencies, low thyroid function, infections, or a buildup of fluid in the brain—and so it is important to test for them. And although most diseases that cause dementia cannot be cured, there are many ways to treat them. As medical science advances, the recommended treatments are becoming more specific to the underlying disease. There are medicines that can stabilize symptoms, at least for a while, and a diagnosis of the cause of dementia can help doctors know which medicine is the most appropriate. There are also many therapies that can be used to help someone who is suffering from dementia, and understanding the cause of the person’s dementia can help in tailoring the therapies to their symptoms.

Some conditions that cause dementia can actually be reversed — so it is important to test for them.

Proactive measures for any kind of dementia

But in addition to these specialized therapies, there are some approaches that make good sense for any kind of dementia and that can be implemented right away, at the first sign of trouble.

Look for early signs. Some memory loss is a normal part of aging, and it can be difficult in the early stages to tell the difference between this normal decline and a more serious problem. Misplacing an item or forgetting a word now and then is not a cause for concern in itself. If forgetfulness seems to interfere with your daily activities, though—or if your loved ones express concern—it’s time to see a doctor. 

Seek diagnosis. Diagnosis of the cause of dementia symptoms is a very rapidly developing science. As discussed above, a diagnosis opens the door to treatments and therapies that can improve life.

Make a care plan, including a support team. Planning for the future can have wonderful effects on the present. For most people, the prospect of dementia causes anxiety. Anxiety often responds well to the reassurance of a good plan for the future. Exploring the wide range of services available for people with dementia can help you both prepare for the future and set your mind at ease in the now.