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What is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?

By: Dr. Rob Winningham

I am frequently asked the question “What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?” The answer is quite simple: Alzheimer’s Disease is simply a type of dementia, actually the most common type of dementia. There are many different types of dementia, but the majority of cases are probably of the Alzheimer’s type. As you probably know, dementia is a term used to describe memory and cognitive impairment that is severe enough to negatively affect quality of life. 

The second most common cause of dementia is Vascular Dementia, which is caused by a stroke. Other types of dementia include, but are not limited to: Dementia with Lewy Bodies, Frontotemporal dementias (e.g., Pick’s Disease), Parkinson’s-related dementia, HIV-related dementia, Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus and Wernicke-Korsakoff Dementia. It appears that each type of dementia is associated with a slightly different set of symptoms. Experienced geriatric professionals can get quite good at differentiating the types of dementia, but unfortunately, in many areas, there is a shortage of such professionals. 

While we still have not found a cure for dementia, there are many lifestyle behaviors that seem to be associated with a significant reduction in the likelihood of developing symptoms of dementia. These are buffering factors, or things that are associated with reduced likelihood of developing dementia: 

  • Physical exercise (including aerobic exercise) 
  • Cognitive exercise 
  • Eating more fish or taking fish oil supplements 
  • Maintaining a healthy weight 
  • Avoiding diabetes 
  • Being socially engaged 

While most types of dementia are not currently reversible, there is a condition that looks like dementia but it is not, and that is known as delirium. Common causes of delirium include infection (urinary tract infections are a common cause in hospital and skilled nursing settings, dehydration, and pharmacological side effects). If you notice a fairly rapid change in cognition (e.g., inability to focus attention, wandering or incomprehensible language, difficulty understanding speech, changes in sleep patterns, etc.), it is important to get the person evaluated by a medical professional. 

Anyone concerned about possible dementia should talk with their doctor. A great place to get more information about dementia is the Alzheimer’s Association. Visit their website at www.alz.org or try contacting a regional chapter of the association.