Many people use Alzheimer’s disease and dementia interchangeably, as though the two terms were just synonyms for the same medical condition, but that is not the case. In reality, while both share similarities, there are distinctions that can be made between the two diagnoses.
First and foremost, dementia is technically a syndrome rather than a disease, meaning the group of symptoms associated with dementia are not tangible enough to have a definitive diagnosis, even from the most skilled of doctors. “Dementia” is more of an umbrella term for symptoms that typically can start with some bouts of forgetfulness, to be followed by slowly-increasing memory impairment that often is accompanied by confusion. Some of the tell-tale signs of dementia include repetitive questioning, poor hygiene, and poor decision making. Those with advanced dementia will not be able to take care of themselves and may need to seek residence in an assisted-care facility like the Princeton Health Care Center.
The risk of dementia increases with age following the slow and steady damaging of brain cells brought on by any of a number of reasons. While Alzheimer’s absolutely can cause dementia, other diseases have been known to cause dementia, as well, including Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease, which are differentiated by the unique sets of brain cells they damage.
While this disease also negatively impacts memory and impairs brain function, it does so in a different way. Long before symptoms of the disease actually show up, the brains of those with Alzheimer’s will form plaques and tangles in abnormal protein deposits in the brain. The connections between brain cells get lost, causing them to die, hence the loss of cognitive function. In the worst cases of Alzheimer’s, the brain actually can shrink.
At present, doctors are not able to diagnose Alzheimer’s in patients definitively because it would require an autopsy of the brain to confirm the aforementioned brain impairments. Diagnoses do come back accurate about 90 percent of the time, but none of them can be officially confirmed until after the patient has passed away.
How to Tell the Difference
The easiest way to tell the difference between these two diagnoses is to see dementia as the blanket term for a set of symptoms that includes impaired thinking and impaired memory. Alzheimer’s can be both a cause of dementia or a very specific form of dementia. In other words, they are related, but they are not the same thing.
Both conditions cause cognitive impairments, which can affect both the memory and communication, but the confusion comes when some Alzheimer’s symptoms, such as apathy, depression, confusion, impaired judgment, or behavioral changes, show up in people suspected of dementia. Since dementia can be caused by so many different diseases, these symptoms are not perfect in leading to a diagnosis.
The good news is that Alzheimer’s and dementia both can be treated by medications, however, Alzheimer’s currently is incurable and dementia can, in some cases, be reversible. Unfortunately, one major difference is that Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness, while certain forms of dementia can be slowed down considerably and occasionally even reversed.
Neither Alzheimer’s nor dementia is easy to face, but we provide services here at Princeton Health Care Center to those residents that need the help of our skilled nursing staff. Living with Alzheimer’s or dementia is a challenge, but it is one we hope we can help patients face with a little more dignity.