What is the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia? This is one of the most common questions I receive when I give presentations in the community or answer the U-M Memory Connection line. This is a great question because the terms are often used in place of one another, despite the fact that they mean different things.
In brief, dementia is a broad term used to describe a collection of symptoms. The symptoms are caused by changes in brain function and they are severe enough to affect daily functioning. There are many reasons why someone may have dementia. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 75% of dementia cases, and that is why the words are often used interchangeably.
I like to use the following visual images when illustrating the difference:
- Imagine that the fruit bowl in your kitchen is dementia. While there are several different pieces of fruit in the bowl, the fruit found most frequently, perhaps a banana, is Alzheimer’s disease. The other fruits in the bowl represent other causes of dementia that aren’t quite as common, such as vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, or reversible dementias induced by things like a urinary tract infection or a vitamin deficiency.
- Imagine that your grandchild has a runny nose. Their runny nose is not a specific disease or condition; it is just a symptom. There are many different potential reasons for the runny nose. It may be caused by influenza, a sinus infection or a reaction to being outside in a cold temperature for too long. In the same way, dementia is not a specific disease and there are several reasons a person may exhibit dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.
Different forms of dementia have different early symptoms. Common early signs include:
- Forgetfulness (short-term/recent memory loss)
- Decreased concentration and attention span
- Less motivation and lack of initiative
- Difficulty with reasoning and/or abstract thinking
- Disorientation and/or decreased spatial awareness
- Some difficulty with word finding
- Judgment lapses
- Mood changes (depression and/or anxiety)
Alzheimer’s disease progression
Alzheimer’s disease begins subtly and often exhibits a gradual progression characterized by the following:
- Abilities needed for complex tasks are typically compromised first. This includes taking initiative, concentrating, sequencing, and multi-tasking.
- Short-term memory loss, such as forgetting common words, names, or the location of familiar places and items used on a daily basis, is another early sign.
- In later stages, activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing and eating become more difficult. Later stages may also include changes in language and personality.
Evaluation is crucial
If you are concerned that you are experiencing signs of dementia, it is important to get an evaluation so that you and your healthcare team can determine the cause. Your symptoms may be due to a reversible cause such as an infection, vitamin deficiency, or untreated anxiety or depression. If you have a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s disease, early identification allows for the best possible intervention and treatment, clinical study participation, social support and future planning.
Important components of an evaluation include:
- Review of symptoms
- Medical and family history
- Physical exam
- Cognitive screening
- Depression evaluation
- Laboratory tests (blood work)
- Brain imaging
- Neuropsychological testing
The U-M Cognitive Disorders Program is one specialty clinic that offers comprehensive evaluations. The program is a division of the Department of Neurology and is located at the U-M Health and Geriatrics Center.
- Visit the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center website to learn more about memory, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- To schedule an appointment at the U-M Cognitive Disorders clinic, call 734-764-6831. Ask your primary care physician for a referral.
- Read The New York Times article, “Is It Ordinary Memory Loss, or Alzheimer’s Disease?”
- Read EurekAlert!’s “Why do so many seniors with memory loss and dementia never get tested?”
- Read Alzheimer’s Disease factsheet: Medicare Update: Annual Wellness Visit (Medicare annual visits for seniors now include dementia detection).
Kristin Cahill, LLMSW, develops, implements and evaluates the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center education initiatives, including the U-M Memory Connection service and the MADC website. She is passionate about partnering with those who are experiencing memory changes and their families in an effort to obtain the resources and coping skills that promote their autonomy, dignity and peace of mind.
The Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center (MADC) was established at the University of Michigan Health System, through affiliation with the Department of Neurology and aims to conduct and promote research on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders; ensure state-of-the-art care for individuals experiencing cognitive impairment or dementia; and enhance the public’s and health professionals’ understanding of dementia through education and outreach efforts. The infrastructure of the Center stems from a 20-year history as an NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.