According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life, while Alzheimer’s is a specific disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society states that Dementia is a condition where problems with memory or other types of thinking make it hard for a person to do everyday activities by themselves. It can be caused by several different diseases that affect the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.

According to Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D., at the Mayo Clinic, these terms are often used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an umbrella term that describes a wide range of symptoms. These symptoms affect people’s ability to perform everyday activities on their own. Common symptoms of dementia include:

• A decline in memory
• Changes in thinking skills
• Poor judgment and reasoning skills
• Decreased focus and attention
• Changes in language
• Changes in behavior

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, but it’s not the only one. There are many different types and causes of dementia, including:

  • Lewy body dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy
  • Parkinson’s disease dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Mixed dementia

While dementia is a general term, Alzheimer’s disease is a specific brain disease. It is marked by symptoms of dementia that gradually get worse over time. Alzheimer’s disease first affects the part of the brain associated with learning, so early symptoms often include changes in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. As the disease progresses, symptoms become more severe and include confusion, changes in behavior and other challenges.

Learning about the two terms and the difference between them is important and can empower individuals living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, their families and their caregivers with necessary knowledge.

Alzheimer’s disease starts in the brain many years before symptoms start to show. Early symptoms are mild and so don’t stop someone doing their normal everyday activities. It’s only later that symptoms become severe enough to be called ‘dementia’. Other common causes of dementia include vascular disease, which prevents blood from getting to the brain properly, and Lewy body disease. Just as with Alzheimer’s, these diseases develop in the brain over many years. Eventually they lead to vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is a group of symptoms. It’s caused by different diseases that damage the brain. Dementia is progressive, which means symptoms may be relatively mild at first, but they get worse over time.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. About two out of three people living with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease, which is sometimes called “Alzheimer’s”. Alzheimer’s disease is a physical illness which damages a person’s brain. Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s are mild and don’t prevent someone from doing everyday activities by themselves. This is called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). It’s often not possible at this stage to say for sure that the person’s symptoms are being caused by Alzheimer’s disease, as there could be many other causes.

Eventually Alzheimer’s disease causes so much damage to the brain that the person develops dementia. Technically this type of dementia is called ‘Alzheimer’s disease dementia’. However, most people – including healthcare professionals – just call it ‘Alzheimer’s disease’. For most people, Alzheimer’s disease starts in and around the part of the brain involved in memory. However, in some rarer types of dementia the disease starts in a different part of the brain and so causes a different set of symptoms. This is called ‘atypical Alzheimer’s’. For example, posterior cortical atrophy is caused by Alzheimer’s in the back of the brain and mostly causes problems with vision.

symptoms of alzheimers

What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

The causes of Alzheimer’s disease are very complex, but one key part is the build-up of two substances inside the brain called amyloid and tau. When conditions in the brain aren’t right, these clump up and form tiny structures called plaques and tangles. These make it harder for the brain to work properly. Over time the disease causes certain parts to become smaller. It also reduces the amount of important chemicals needed to send messages around the brain. There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, treatments may temporarily ease some symptoms or slow down their progression in some people.

What are the main other types of Dementia – and what causes them?

  • Vascular dementia: this the second most common type of dementia. It is caused by problems with the blood supply to parts of the brain.
  • Lewy body dementia: Lewy bodies are tiny clumps of protein that build up in the brain. When this happens, it leads to Lewy body disease. There are two main types:
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies:  When the first signs of Lewy body disease are symptoms of dementia, this is known as ‘dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB)’.
    Parkinson’s disease dementia: Lewy body disease can also cause Parkinson’s disease, which mostly involves problems with movement but can also lead to dementia several years later. If it does, this is known as Parkinson’s disease dementia.
  • Frontotemporal dementia: this is a less common type of dementia. It can be caused by several different types of disease but they all mostly affect the front or the sides of the brain, known as the frontal and temporal lobes.
  • Mixed dementia: A diagnosis of mixed dementia is generally used when someone has a mixture of clinical symptoms from two or more different types of dementia – for example, if they have symptoms of both Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies.

How do I know what type of Dementia I have?

diagnosis of dementia needs to be made by a healthcare professional who specializes in dementia, usually following a detailed assessment at a local memory service. When someone gets a diagnosis of dementia, they should ideally be told by the doctor what type they have. This doesn’t always happen though. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the cause of a person’s dementia is – particularly during the earlier stages. It’s not always essential to know straight away what the cause of dementia is, but it can help to make better sense of the person’s symptoms and to get the right treatment.

This article is provided by Dr. Kuechle, a psychologist and maternal health specialist at Harbor Mental Health. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle .