What is the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

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This is a question that is often asked, and I’m always astonished that in the newspapers and other media the words are used almost randomly, causing confusion in everyone.

Dementia is a set of symptoms

Dementia is a set of symptoms, which includes memory loss, but also a lot of other inconvenient things, like loss of judgement. People with dementia sometimes make bad decisions like they’d never have done before, such as get taken in by a rogue tradesman. Sometimes they have difficulty with balance.

They might find it really hard to learn anything new, or to work things out when presented with a simple problem, like how to turn on the TV. All that annoying stuff can make a person angry and so being aggressive, irritated, distressed or depressed is perhaps an understandable reaction to what is happening.

If I don’t recognise my daughter trying to come in the house, I might fight with her to push her out again. From my point of view it’s logical and appropriate. More than one disease can cause dementia. The best known and commonest disease is Alzheimer’s disease.

The others include a long list, but vascular disease, fronto-temporal dementia, and Lewy body disease are also common. Each causes dementia, but the particular symptoms might be different from one disease to another. For example people with Lewy body disease are more likely to suffer from hallucinations.

Why do people say “Alzheimer’s” when they only mean dementia?

Dementia is a symptom that is caused by a number of diseases. So why do people say “Alzheimer’s” when they only mean dementia of any type at all? Well it is related to embarrassment.

The words “dementia” or “demented” seem to be much more frightening or even embarrassing than the world “Alzheimer’s”. The same is true in many languages and that is why the dementia organisations in many countries are called “Alzheimer’s Societies” rather than “dementia organisations”.

An interesting fact is this. In Alzheimer’s disease there is sometimes nothing that can be done to slow down the disease process, which causes shrinkage of the brain. However, the process of the dementia symptoms that the person has can be slowed. Not everything works for everyone, but it is important to try all of the ideas. You will find more of these ideas in Dementia the One Stop Guide, and When Someone You Know has Dementia.