Alzheimer's vs. dementia: An overview for National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month

While there are many conditions that can cause memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are probably two of the most well-known terms associated with cognitive decline. However, while these two terms are often used interchangeably, they actually refer to different kinds of memory loss diseases. In honor of November being National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, we wanted to take a few moments to address some important considerations when comparing Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Alzheimer’s vs. dementia: An overview

Dementia: Dementia refers to an assortment of symptoms associated with memory issues, a decline in reasoning, or other reduced cognitive abilities. There are many kinds of dementia, many of which are caused by various conditions, including Alzheimer’s. It is estimated that Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s: Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that is caused by complex brain changes as a result of damage to brain cells. It causes dementia symptoms that gradually progress with time, and generally begins with issues recalling new information. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in the U.S., impacting around 6.2 million people over the age of 65. 

How is Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed?

Traditionally, Alzheimer’s could only be diagnosed via a post-mortem brain examination, but there are many tests for Alzheimer’s that can now be done. Doctors will typically test reflexes, sight, hearing, coordination, and balance in conjunction with blood tests to rule out other causes of memory loss and assess overall neurological function. Depending on these results, doctors may proceed with testing for Alzheimer’s via brain imaging, including MRI, CT, and PET scans.

The progression of Alzheimer’s disease

To examine the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, experts use the Alzheimer’s disease continuum, which is broken down into three main categories:

Preclinical Alzheimer’s: No symptoms

Mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s: Mild symptoms that do not interfere with everyday activities

Dementia due to Alzheimer’s: Ranges from mild, moderate, to severe depending on how severely everyday activities are affected by loss of memory

While the progression continuum is the same for all patients, how long each individual spends in each stage can vary based on age, genetics, gender, and other factors.

Normal memory issues compared to Alzheimer’s and dementia

As we age, forgetting things occasionally is completely normal. It is only when memory loss makes it difficult to live your everyday life that there might be a more serious cause for concern. Some signs it might be time to talk with your doctor include:

  • Repeatedly asking the same questions
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Trouble following recipes or instructions
  • Growing confused about time

While forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, the more serious problems associated with Alzheimer’s and dementia are not. It can also be helpful to ask a loved one if they have noticed a decline in your cognitive function to gain an outside perspective on the situation.

Though Alzheimer’s disease and dementia can have an outsized impact on a person’s quality of life, participating in clinical research can provide patients with options. To learn more about clinical trial opportunities, click the button below.