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What Is The Difference Between Alzheimer's and Dementia

What Is The Difference Between Alzheimer's and Dementia
Kevin Cleary

Key Takeaways: 

  • Dementia is a progressive loss of cognitive abilities, and Alzheimer’s disease is a common form of dementia. 
  • Dementia is not a specific disease but an umbrella term covering a varying range of symptoms.
  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is a specific brain disease.
  • Alzheimer’s disease is marked by symptoms that worsen over time and can become severe.
  • There are four stages of Alzheimer’s disease, each progressively worse than the other, affecting 6.7 million Americans as of 2023.


The term "dementia" is often misused when identifying Alzheimer's disease. Yes, they both refer to cognitive decline, but Alzheimer's disease is an extremely specific form of dementia. In general, dementia is a medical condition characterized by slow mental decline, while Alzheimer's disease is a disorder that results in dementia. Think of it as "every thumb is a finger, but not every finger is a thumb." Both dementia and Alzheimer's disease are often considered diseases of the elderly, but according to the National Institute of Aging, early-onset Alzheimer's can begin during the 30s. It is rare and accounts for less than 10% of Alzheimer's cases, affecting approximately 200,000 people. So, how do you tell the difference between old age, fullness, Alzheimer's disease, and dementia? I'll try to shed light on it for you.

What Is Dementia?

So, what exactly is dementia? Neurologist M. Marsel-Mesulam identifies the definition of dementia as a "progressive deterioration in intellectual abilities and/or comportment, which eventually results in a restriction of customary daily living activities." Progressive deterioration means that these changes occur over a long period, and dementia describes a wide range of symptoms that are caused by many disorders that affect our brains. More than 55 million people have dementia worldwide, and every year, 10 million more cases are diagnosed. Dementia cost economies approximately $1.3 trillion worldwide in 2019, and women are disproportionately affected by dementia both directly and indirectly. Women experience higher life disability-affected years while also providing 70% of care for those with dementia. While Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that accounts for 60% of all dementia cases, there are 25% resulting from vascular dementia , with an additional 15% from other causes. 

Dementia Symptoms

Common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Memory decline
  • Poor judgment/reasoning skills
  • Change in thinking skills
  • Changes in behavior/language

Over time, dementia can cause life-threatening complications. Not only can dementia patients become forgetful, but they can experience malnutrition, Pneumonia, and the inability to perform tasks or self-care (such as hygiene, dressing, etc.). Early intervention for dementia can help manage this condition, but there is no cure. There are some treatable conditions, such as common infections and vitamin deficiencies, that can mimic dementia. Some other forms of dementia are:

  • Lewy body dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)
  • Parkinson’s disease dementia
  • Huntington’s disease

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease

So, what makes Alzheimer's disease different from dementia? Alzheimer's disease is the leading cause of dementia and has two categories: sporadic and familial. The familial form of this disease only accounts for about 5% of Alzheimer's cases, while the other 95% are classified as sporadic. Alzheimer's disease typically affects those over 65 years old and is a progressive condition that gets worse over time. 60%-80% of those with dementia have Alzheimer's disease. It's believed that proteins, a.k.a. plaque, cause Alzheimer's disease, and fibers called "tangles" build up in your brain, blocking signals and destroying nerve cells. Alzheimer's disease has symptoms such as:

Alzheimer's Symptoms

  • Trouble remembering names, events, or even conversations
  • Mood changes
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Personality changes and impaired judgment/decision-making
  • Language deterioration

Another characteristic of Alzheimer's disease that differentiates it from "standard" dementia is a reduction in the production of brain chemicals necessary for communication between brain cells. These include norepinephrine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and somatostatin. 

What Causes Alzheimer's?

The cause of this disease is not fully understood, but in an article, the National Institute on Aging states that the causes of Alzheimer's disease can include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Environmental factors
  • Genes
  • Abnormal protein deposits in the brain

Current research shows that the development of Alzheimer's disease is typically random and is not linked to any dietary habits, personality, or occupation. The first signs of Alzheimer's disease can be minimal and resemble typical aging "senior moments." If these moments become problematic, consult your physician.

Our Best Products for Alzheimer's and Dementia Patients

When to Seek Medical Attention

If you or a loved one start noticing moments of "forgetfulness" that become more frequent or interfere with daily life, consult your physician. There is no single test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease , but specialists can rule out other conditions with similar symptoms and diagnose Alzheimer's disease with 95% accuracy. Examination and evaluation are the only tools available to determine if dementia is the culprit. Your physician may order extensive neurological motor and sensory exams , including a mental status test, neuropsychological testing, and a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) , as well as x-rays or an MRI. There is no cure for dementia/Alzheimer's disease , so early diagnosis is your best bet for managing these disorders.



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HPFY Kevin Cleary

Kevin Cleary

Kevin Cleary has been a Health Products For You contributor for many years and has a degree in marketing. His health and wellness journey has a very personal meaning and has guided him in his content writing for HPFY.

In 2006, ...

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