What is the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Dementia impacts an estimated 5 million American seniors aged 65 and older, and that number is projected to rise to 14 million by 2060. While the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia are often used interchangeably, Alzheimer’s disease is one of the many types of dementia, much like how arthritis is a blanket term that describes over 100 forms of joint pain, inflammation or disease.

Keep reading to learn about the similarities and differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia, the prevalence of memory loss in the United States and some of the common causes of cognitive issues among adults.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is a broad-reaching term that refers to a number of chronic or acute cognitive issues, including memory impairment. Dementia can develop immediately following a traumatic brain injury, drug overdose or sudden cardiovascular event, such as a stroke or heart attack. Symptoms of dementia can also develop over a period of weeks, months or years, as is often the case among older adults.

Advanced age is the single highest risk factor for developing dementia, and there’s little difference in the rates of dementia between women and men. The lifetime risk of experiencing some form of dementia is 18.2%, and as people age, their risk dramatically increases. Nationwide, just under 2% of adults have dementia, while over 40% of those aged 100 or older have some form of memory loss.

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia among Americans. Adults aged 60 and older are at the greatest risk of developing Alzheimer’s and that risk increases with advanced age, although the disease has been known to occur in adults in their 30s and 40s.

While scientists still don’t know exactly what causes dementia, they do know that these factors can increase the odds of developing Alzheimer’s:

  • Advanced age
  • Genetics/family history of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cardiovascular issues including hypertension and high cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Excessive alcohol consumption over an extended period of time
  • Smoking tobacco products
  • Congenital cognitive impairment
  • Obesity

Contrary to popular belief, Alzheimer’s disease is not considered to be a part of normal aging.

Alzheimer's vs. Dementia

Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, is characterized by a number of symptoms, including:

  • Memory loss
  • Decline in cognitive skills
  • Difficulty focusing on everyday tasks
  • Language processing issues
  • Poor impulse control
  • Lack of judgement
  • Difficulty performing activities of daily living
  • Aggression
  • Disorientation
  • Depression
  • Sleep disturbance

People who present with dementia-like symptoms are usually diagnosed with dementia pending an in-depth investigation by their doctor. This is important to understand, because while many types of dementia include similar symptoms, the treatments differ.

In order to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, medical professionals conduct a number of tests, such as blood tests, urinalysis and brain imaging. Doctors also review the patient’s medical history and look for any possible links between the dementia symptoms and other issues, such as hormonal imbalances, adverse reactions to medications, brain injury or cardiovascular disease.

Once all other possible causes of the dementia symptoms are ruled out, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease may be made.

Common Types of Dementia

While Alzheimer’s disease causes approximately 70% of all dementia cases, there are a number of other acute and chronic conditions and diseases that also trigger memory loss, disordered thinking and other dementia symptoms. These include:

Lewy body dementia is the second most common type of progressive-degenerative dementia behind Alzheimer’s disease. It causes a collection of symptoms, such as visual hallucinations, which can lead to aggressive and/or self-harming behaviors. As with Alzheimer’s, this type of dementia also causes memory loss, confusion, sleep disruption and depression.

Although relatively rare, rapid-onset dementias can also be triggered by autoimmune diseases, vitamin deficiencies, chronic seizures, cancer and exposure to toxic substances. Unlike most types of dementia, some cases of rapid-onset dementia can be treated successfully if the root cause is identified relatively soon after symptoms appear.