What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?
Both Alzheimer’s Disease (often referred to as just Alzheimer’s, or, abbreviated as AD in the medical and scientific communities) and dementia are associated with memory loss, but they are different. You can think of it like this: Alzheimer’s is characterized by dementia, but not all dementia is Alzheimer’s. (Most is, though, as we’ll discuss later on.)
What is dementia?
Dementia is the general term for the impairment of cognitive function — a person’s ability to think, remember, make decisions, etc. Specifically, dementia is the cognitive decline that interferes with a person’s ability to go about daily life normally.
You may also hear “senility” or “senile dementia” used to mean the same thing. These terms are incorrect and misleading, as they are based on the assumption that severe levels of cognitive decline are inevitable with age. While age-related memory loss and mild cognitive impairment pose a challenge to some aging adults, dementia is not a normal part of aging.
There are several types of dementia, though Alzheimer’s is the most common. This graphic from alzheimers.org illustrates the prevalence of the other more common forms of dementia, including Lewy Body dementia, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and others.
Symptoms of dementia
Loss of normal brain function results in several symptomatic behaviors, and dementia may present as any combination and number of the following:
- – Memory loss
- – Difficulty communicating, reasoning, or problem-solving
- – Trouble with visual and spatial abilities
- – Confusion and disorientation
- – Personality changes
- – Inappropriate behavior
- – Paranoia and agitation
- – Hallucinations
What causes dementia?
Dementia and memory loss are always caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells in the brain, whether from genetic causes, disease, injury, or illness.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a physical disease that progresses over time. It’s characterized by abnormal protein structures in the brain occurring in the form of plaques and tangles. These buildups block and tear down neural pathways and stop the flow of blood, impairing memory and other brain functions.
Memory loss and impairment of rational thinking are usually the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These symptoms often progress into loss of language, problems with visual-spatial ability, and may eventually compound to result in behavioral disorder.
Alzheimer’s fast facts
- – Alzheimer’s is the number one cause of dementia worldwide.
- – 60-70% of all dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer’s disease
- – Alzheimer’s disease (and other dementia) is caused by a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors
- – The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is advanced age
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
According to the Mayo Clinic, science has yet to completely explain the cause of Alzheimer’s, although it’s believed to be related to a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
Can you prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?
Due to unpredictable genetic factors, and the inability to pinpoint a single exact cause, Alzheimer’s disease is not preventable, nor is it curable, despite ongoing work on treatments. This is no reason to not take control of your own health though, or help those you love to take control of theirs: recent research shows that healthy lifestyle choices may reduce the risk of developing dementia (most of which, if you’ll remember, is associated with Alzheimer’s).
As of a 2018 article on pharmacologic therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s, the only interventions proven to absolutely lower your risk of Alzheimer’s and possibly prevent overall cognitive decline or dementia are diet and exercise. These are the first line of defense for cognitive function, regardless of a patient’s age or brain function at the time of treatment.
The same article notes that studies indicate supplements such as huperzine A, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish oils can help support memory function and overall brain health, in some cases slowing the progression of the symptoms of dementia. However, since Alzheimer’s is a physical disease of the brain, these supplements can not reduce the presence of existing disease.
Taking care of your brain
While genetics do play a role in Alzheimer’s and dementia, less than 5% of the genes identified as potential indicators of Alzheimer’s guarantee the development of the disease. While future health outcomes are never totally predictable, in comparison to the power of lifestyle choices, genetics only play a small role.
This is good news! Diet, sleep, and exercise are all key to preventing the cell damage that results in dementia, which means there’s a lot you can do proactively to protect your memory. You can also support your neurological health with pharmaceutical-grade supplements designed to give your brain the nutrients it needs to stay strong.
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