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FAQ About the Difference between Alzheimer's and Dementia

February 16, 2015

What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Dementia is simply a broad term for the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s and related diseases. It is NOT a diagnosis, or some less serious/early form of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes it is listed as a diagnosis, as in “Dementia-Unspecified”, in other words the specific disease being unknown. However, there is always some disease/cause underlying this set of symptoms and this broad usage causes many individuals and families (and even healthcare providers) to be confused. Dementia symptoms can be caused by an array of progressive diseases such as:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease (the most common)

  • Vascular Dementia (caused by impaired supply of blood to the brain such as caused by small strokes; 2nd most common)

  • Lewy Body Disease

  • Parkinson’s or Huntington’s Disease

  • Fronto-temporal dementia


Possible reversible causes of dementia include alcohol and drug use, side effects of medication, metabolic problems and vitamin/nutrient deficiencies.

Are the different diseases that cause dementia treated differently (i.e. does it matter which one my loved one has)?


Many of the treatments for symptoms are similar. A good diagnosis is useful for a few reasons: to ensure there is not a reversible cause, to understand what to expect and to tailor treatment as much as possible. A good diagnostic workup will check for reversible causes and do a general health assessment, as well as a comprehensive history and review of symptoms. Though definitive differential diagnosis only happens via viewing the brain at autopsy, an experienced practitioner can determine the cause with better than 90% accuracy. Some of the progressive forms of dementia will be treated quite differently overall, because they are part of a more broad disease with specific treatment regimens (such as Parkinson’s or treating vascular disease to reduce the likelihood of future strokes).

Many of the memory and behavioral symptoms will be treated with similar medications and management methods. It is important that you work with a specialist who understands the disease and is experienced in dementia treatment.

How do I know if my memory problems are just part of getting old?

Nine out of 10 times when someone asks, it’s because there are noticeable concerns. Alzheimer’s and impaired memory is not a normal part of aging, though our cognition changes slightly as we age and we may have more trouble remembering small things or learning new things the way we once did. However, these changes do not affect functioning. Serious gaps in memory or difficulty carrying out regular tasks are not normal.

You can read a quick synopsis of 10 Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease (versus what’s normal) here or consider a memory screening (done by most medical practitioners or visit the Alzheimer’s Association Memory Mobile or events for free screenings).

What causes Alzheimer’s disease? (If my grandma has it, will I get it?)

The immediate cause is a particular pattern of brain cell damage (the pattern which can be seen at autopsy). The underlying causes, however, are not completely understood. We know some of the risk factors involved, but this area is constantly evolving.

There is some genetic linkage, and a family history does put you at greater risk. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (typically presenting between ages 30-60) may have a stronger genetic link (or even a direct link in some cases).

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