Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease 101: The Difference, and Why It Matters

Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are often spoken about interchangeably, but they are not the same. The National Council on Aging recently shared information from the Alzheimer's Foundation of America which explains the different types of dementia and the warning signs.

Senior woman and her daughter close-up

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

"Dementia" is a general term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills, including judgment, reasoning, and complex motor skills. There are several dementia-related illnesses, and Alzheimer's is just one of them.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60 – 80 percent of dementia cases. It is a chronic disease that causes memory loss or difficulty thinking or problem-solving — to the point where it interferes with everyday activities. Alzheimer's disease can progress until a person doesn't remember their own family and might undergo a complete personality change.

Other types of dementia include:

Vascular dementia: A decline in memory and thinking skills brought on by blockage or reduction of blood flow to the brain that deprives the brain of oxygen and nutrients. Risk factors are similar to those for heart problems, stroke, and other diseases that affect blood vessels.

Lewy body dementia (LBD): An umbrella term that refers to both Parkinson's disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, which are protein deposits that develop in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory, and movement.

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD): The Mayo Clinic describes FTD as a diverse group of uncommon disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain — the areas generally associated with personality, behavior, and language.

These dementia-related illnesses are not a normal part of aging, and in order to limit your chances of getting dementia and/or to better manage the condition, it's important to know the symptoms and the prevention techniques that are most effective.

Lowering the Risk

The biggest risk factors for these conditions are things you often can't control, including age, family history, and genetics. However, the good news is that studies suggest that lifestyle changes can slow or prevent onset.

  • Exercise: Staying active isn't just good for your heart; it's also great for your brain.
  • Sleep: Your brain does important stuff while you are sleeping, so getting at least seven hours of sleep a night is crucial.
  • Be smart about your diet: Research suggests that the foods you eat can affect your brain health, both for the better and for the worse.
  • Control other chronic conditions: Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar within recommended limits.
  • Be mindful of harmful substances: Limit alcohol use and eliminate smoking.
  • Challenge your brain: Try small things, such as brushing your teeth or eating with your non-dominant hand.
  • Continue to pursue favorite hobbies or take up new ones: Art, music, gardening, and learning a new language are just a few that can help keep your mind active.
  • Manage stress: Relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, can be helpful.
  • Use your health care: Visit your doctor or health care professional regularly and be sure to stay up to date on preventive screenings and benefits.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

The following are some common warning signs and symptoms of dementia:

Warning signs of dementia

Keep in mind that every individual is unique and may not exhibit all of the above symptoms. Always consult a physician to discuss changes in memory and thinking abilities. A thorough assessment by your physician or a specialist, such as a neurologist, can determine what is causing these symptoms.

Source: Lauren Snedeker, LMSW, is a licensed social worker at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing optimal care and services to individuals living with dementia and to their families and caregivers. Courtesy of the National Council on Aging, a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Their mission is to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling. Through innovative community programs and services, online help, and advocacy, NCOA is partnering with nonprofit organizations, government, and business to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020.