Dementia vs Alzheimer: What’s The Difference?

Posted on September 30, 2021

Neurodegenerative disorders like dementia and Alzheimer's disease are some of the top causes of disability in Canada. So, if you or a loved one is suffering from one of these debilitating conditions, you aren't alone.

Yet, when it comes to dementia vs Alzheimer's, many people don't know the difference. That's why we're bringing you this guide.

Dementia is the name for a collection of symptoms affecting cognition and memory. And Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia.

Were you or a loved one recently diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's disease? Let us help you through this difficult time. Read this guide for everything you need to know about Alzheimer's, dementia, and how they differ.

Alzheimer Society of Canada member

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Like all neurodegenerative disorders, Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive condition. Progressive refers to diseases and disorders that get worse and worse as time goes by.

People with Alzheimer's generally progress from mild to moderate to severe versions of the disease. Some of the earliest symptoms of mild Alzheimer's to look out for include:

  • Difficulty learning
  • Repetitive conversations
  • Losing important items (e.g., keys, phones, etc.)
  • Getting lost during routine activities

As you can see, Alzheimer's early-onset symptoms have two things in common. These things are memory loss and cognitive difficulties.

For people suffering from Alzheimer's, losing memory can be very confusing and, often, distressing. It's not uncommon for people with Alzheimer's to forget their loved ones. And this can also be distressing for their families.

How Is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose Alzheimer's disease based on a person's symptoms and medical history. These days, brain imaging can also help diagnose Alzheimer's. These imaging tests look for the presence of plaques and tangles in the brain.

Sometimes, doctors will even test for the APOE e4 gene. Some studies show that this gene may confer a higher risk for Alzheimer's disease.

And, indeed, it's well-known that people with a family history of Alzheimer's are at a higher risk. However, not all types of Alzheimer's are genetically linked. We'll talk more about why that is, next.

The Different Types of Alzheimer's Disease

Doctors distinguish between three types of Alzheimer's diseases based on when people start experiencing symptoms. The three types are:

  • Early-onset Alzheimer's disease
  • Late-onset Alzheimer's disease
  • Familial Alzheimer's disease (FAD)

Early-onset Alzheimer's disease shows up in people under the age of 65. Age is a significant risk factor for neurodegenerative disorders, which is why this type of Alzheimer's is rare. It affects only about 5% of people with Alzheimer's.

Late-onset Alzheimer's is far more common. This type of Alzheimer's disease occurs in adults over age 65.

Scientists don't think this type of Alzheimer's is genetic. Instead, they believe that lifestyle factors and aging play a more significant role. Still, we need more research to know for sure.

FAD is the only type of Alzheimer's disease that we know for sure is linked to genetics. It affects only about 1% of Alzheimer's patients. And most of these patients also suffer from early-onset symptoms.

The Main Cause of Alzheimer's Disease

The hallmarks of Alzheimer's are plaques and tangles (clumps of protein that build up in regions of the brain) and brain cell death. But it's the death of neurons that leads to Alzheimer's most common symptom — memory loss.

Neuronal death reduces brain cell connections. This makes it difficult for neurons to communicate. And when our brain cells can't pass information from one neuron to another, our brains and bodies can't perform as usual.

By now, what you're probably really wondering is: what are the risk factors for Alzheimer's disease?

We've already talked about three of them. Getting older, a family history of Alzheimer's, and the APOE e4 gene all confer a higher risk of this disease.

But researchers have also uncovered lifestyle factors that may also increase the risk for Alzheimer's.

Leading a sedentary lifestyle, eating an unhealthy diet, and being in poor cardiovascular health are associated with Alzheimer's diagnoses.

Yet, as with many medical conditions, it's important to understand that just because you're at risk doesn't mean you'll develop Alzheimer's.

The 10 Causes of Alzheimer's Disease

We've already mentioned the main cause of Alzheimer's. And we've discussed some of the top risk factors for developing this disease. Here are more factors that could increase your risk for all three types of Alzheimer's:

  1. Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  2. Down's Syndrome
  3. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
  4. Chronic lack of sleep
  5. Lack of education
  6. Lack of cognitive stimulation
  7. Lack of social stimulation
  8. Smoking tobacco
  9. Overconsumption of alcohol
  10. Obesity

Unfortunately, scientists have yet to find a cure for Alzheimer's. But managing these Alzheimer's risk factors early on can help reduce the chances of developing this disorder later in life.

What Alzheimer's Can Do to A Person

As we've mentioned, Alzheimer's doesn't have a cure. But there are medications to help treat it. Doctors have also developed behavioural treatments for patients with Alzheimer's.

It's critical to seek treatment immediately to halt the progression of Alzheimer's. And you want to address symptoms when they're still in their earliest stages.

After all, once a person develops severe Alzheimer's, he or she may begin to have trouble communicating, performing self-care, and even getting out of bed.

The later stages of this disease aren't just devastating for the person suffering from it. Later-stage Alzheimer's symptoms can also cause difficulties for loved ones too.

Lewy Body Dementia Symptoms

What Is Dementia?

Dementia isn't actually a disease or disorder. Instead, it's a catch-all category for symptoms associated with memory loss. So, certain disorders can cause dementia, but dementia doesn't necessarily cause other disorders.

As such, doctors have a much harder time diagnosing dementia compared to Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. A doctor may need to run multiple tests and perform brain scans to provide a dementia diagnosis.

Further, it's important to understand that, though memory loss is the earliest and most common symptom, it's not the only one. Dementia can also lead to the following problems:

  • Difficulty with reasoning and/or problem-solving tasks
  • Trouble communicating
  • A hard time staying organized or planning
  • Motor dysfunction

As dementia progresses, it can also affect peoples' personalities. Many people develop mood disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.), become paranoid or aggressive, and even experience hallucinations.

A few very rare types of dementia are genetic. However, the majority of people with a family history of dementia don't develop. The exact genetic link depends on the type of dementia, though.

The Types of Dementia

Doctors categorize dementia into different types based on the diseases and/or disorders that cause it. In general, you can distinguish between progressive disorders causing irreversible dementia, diseases causing dementia, and conditions causing reversible dementia-like symptoms.

Examples of conditions causing irreversible dementia include Alzheimer's, Vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Frontotemporal dementia.

Diseases like Huntington's, Creutzfeld-Jakob, and Parkinson's also lead to dementia in later stages. And traumatic brain injuries (TBI) can cause so much brain damage, they can sometimes lead to dementia down the line.

Finally, some forms of dementia are reversible. Some infections, medications, and nutritional deficiencies can cause memory loss as a symptom. With treatment and/or cessation of medication, memory can return.

The Main Causes of Dementia

Alzheimer's is the leading cause of dementia. In fact, it's estimated that up to 80% of dementia patients also suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

But, in general, the main causes of dementia are the loss of neurons and the connections between these brain cells. Sometimes, dementia comes with plaques and tangles. But when caused by other diseases, these biomarkers aren't present.

Like Alzheimer's, getting older and having a family history of dementia may also increase a person's risk. Having Down Syndrome is also a risk factor for dementia since this condition is highly correlated with early-onset Alzheimer's.

We can't prevent these risk factors. But eating healthier, exercising, reducing alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, and maintaining good cardiovascular health are the best things we can do to reduce the risk of developing dementia.

The 10 Warning Signs of Dementia

Do you have a family history of dementia? Are you getting older? Do you partake in many of the activities that confer a higher risk for dementia?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you should look out for the following warning signs of dementia:

  1. Memory loss
  2. Poor judgment
  3. Language difficulties
  4. Space-temporal issues
  5. Losing important items
  6. Trouble carrying out routine tasks
  7. Mood or behavioural changes
  8. Inability to think abstractly
  9. Personality changes
  10. Lack of interest in people and activities you used to enjoy

Looking out for these signs means you can intervene before it's too late. After all, research shows that there are ways you may be able to prevent the onset of dementia.

What Happens When You Have Dementia?

Dementia doesn't just affect your brain. It alters the way your body functions, too. That's why leaving dementia untreated can lead to further complications.

For example, untreated dementia presents a higher risk for lung problems, including pneumonia. Issues with motor function can affect the jaw and throat, reducing the ability to eat, and leading to nutritional deficiencies.

Dementia also touches the lives of loved ones. People with later-stage dementia can't care for themselves or perform daily living activities. At this point, a caregiver must be present around the clock, which can be tiring and/or expensive.

Sadly, dementia almost always results in death. And many people with dementia also slip into a coma in their later days.

So, how do you prevent dementia and the complications that come with it? Many of the same preventative measures taken to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's also works for dementia.

That means eating healthier, getting more exercise, quitting smoking, and reducing your alcohol consumption. It's also important to manage your heart health and stay active socially.

Dementia vs Alzheimer Comparison Table

DementiaAlzheimer's Disease
Definition Dementia is a general term for symptoms like memory loss, reasoning or other thinking skills.Alzheimer is a type of dementia and
also a cause of dementia that accounts for 60%-80% of dementia cases.
SpecialtyNeurology, PsychiatryNeurology
SymptomsDecreased ability to think and remember, emotional problems, problems with language, decreased motivationDifficulty in remembering recent events, problems with language, disorientation, mood swings
Usual OnsetGradualOver 65 years old
DurationLong termLong term
Alzheimer's disease, vascular disease, Lewy body disease and frontotemporal lobar degeneration
Poorly understood
Diagnostic MethodCognitive testing (Mini-Mental State Examination)Based on symptoms and cognitive testing after ruling out other possible causes[
Differential DiagnosisDelirium HypothyroidismNormal aging
PreventionEarly education, prevent high blood pressure, prevent obesity, no smoking, social engagemen
TreatmentSupportive care
MedicationAcetylcholinesterase inhibitors (small benefit)Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, NMDA receptor antagonists (small benefit)
Frequency50 million (2020)29.8 million (2015)
Deaths2.4 million (2016)For all dementias 1.9 million (2015)

The Growing Alzheimer's & Dementia Population

Nearly 750,000 Canadians suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. And researchers project that this number will at least double over the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, the cost of Alzheimer's and dementia care is on the rise. In Manitoba alone, the total economic cost of dementia conditions was nearly $1 billion in 2018. Researchers project that to grow to at least $28 billion over the next 17 years.

And not all of this cost gets shared among Canadians. Canadian Medicare doesn't always cover the cost of dementia medications. That means the patient must take out a supplemental policy or pay entirely out of pocket.

Even for patients with mild cases, it costs at least $367 per month for treatments. That cost increases to over $4,000 per month for severe Alzheimer's patients.

Unfortunately, this cost burden isn't the only thing families of people with dementia disorders have to carry. For example, when your loved one passes away, there are financial planning processes to consider. And if your loved one dies without a medical policy, he or she may not leave behind life insurance.

Family members often serve as caregivers for the person with dementia. But even when family members don't have to carry that burden, they must pay for someone else to. And that means finding the right dementia care facility.

The Bottom Line and Where to Find Insurance Coverage

When it comes to dementia vs Alzheimer's, the symptoms are generally the same. The biggest difference is that many different diseases and disorders can cause dementia, including Alzheimer's. But Alzheimer's only has one cause: the death of brain cells.

Does your current insurance policy cover treatments for dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease? If not, we're here to help. Get a free health insurance quote from Insurdinary today.

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