What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

Medical Director for Development at Bupa UK
21 September 2017

When it comes to getting older, some of the most common fears people have are around Alzheimer’s and dementia. These are two words we hear used a lot when it comes to older people’s health and care ... but what do they actually mean? And what’s the difference between the two?

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The difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia

The word ‘dementia’ doesn’t refer to one specific condition. It actually describes a set of symptoms that result from a deterioration of brain function. These symptoms can include problems with thinking, reasoning, learning, memory and language; behavioural and emotional problems; and difficulties with daily activities.

It is estimated that there are over 850,000 people with dementia in the UK. It’s more likely to affect older people, but it’s not an inevitable part of growing old, and it’s different from the forgetfulness that often comes with ageing.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure, and it gets worse over time.

It can be caused by many different conditions. The most common of these conditions – and the one you’ve probably heard of – is Alzheimer’s disease.

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common condition that causes dementia, with around six in every 10 cases caused by Alzheimer’s disease. While technically it is a ‘cause’ of dementia, you’ll often hear it referred to as a ‘type’ of dementia.

If a person has Alzheimer’s, the ability of the brain to send signals between nerve cells is damaged, which affects the ability to think, and communicate actions to the rest of the body. Doctors don’t currently understand much about why this happens. Early symptoms can include memory getting worse, finding it difficult to do daily tasks, and becoming more irritable than usual.

Alzheimer’s tends to come on gradually, and the condition progresses over time: symptoms worsen, and others may appear. Eventually someone with Alzheimer’s will need looking after all the time.

How do the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s compare?

There are a really wide range of possible dementia symptoms, but Alzheimer’s symptoms are a little more specific. Dementia symptoms vary depending on what is causing the dementia, and also vary from one person to the next. The main dementia symptoms fall into three different groups:

  • Difficulties with remembering, thinking and language. The person might be forgetful, repeat questions, struggle to remember words and have conversations, or be disoriented.
  • Difficulties with daily activities. They might struggle with their routine – maybe becoming unhygienic or neglecting their home. They might also get lost in familiar places.
  • Emotional and behavioural difficulties. There are a whole range of these, including being withdrawn or apathetic, low or anxious, suspicious of others, or even aggressive. The person could also be restless and have trouble sleeping.

The different causes of dementia may have different symptoms in the early stages. But as the conditions progress, someone is more likely to have the full range of dementia symptoms.

In Alzheimer’s specifically, the first thing that tends to appear is memory problems. The person might also lose interest in their favourite activities or hobbies. As time goes on, these problems will get worse. The person may get more confused, and struggle to plan and follow instructions. In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, more serious symptoms like hallucinations, aggression, depression and incontinence can appear.

It’s also important to think about the impact dementia and Alzheimer’s can have on family carers. Looking after someone with dementia can be very stressful, and family carers should seek support if they need it, and look after their own health.

Treatment options for Alzheimer’s and dementia

There are treatments available for some causes of dementia, and one of these is Alzheimer’s disease. The aim of treatment is to help the person to manage their daily life independently for as long as possible. The most commonly used dementia treatment are medicines which treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and can help slow the progress of, but won’t stop, the underlying disease itself. Unfortunately, they don’t work for everyone. It’s also important to remember that they don’t cure or reverse Alzheimer’s.

These medicines can also have a similar effect in another type of dementia called dementia with Lewy bodies. But for other types of dementia, like vascular dementia, there are no known treatments yet.

Is there any chance of recovery from Alzheimer’s or dementia?

Sadly, at present there’s no cure for any of the conditions that cause dementia, and no chance of reversing the progression of the underlying disease. By its nature, it gets worse over time, until someone is likely to need round-the-clock care.

Who’s most at risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia?

There are a few factors than can affect how likely you are to get dementia. The main one is age: the older you get, the more likely you are to get it. At age 60–64, around one in 100 people have it. This rises to around six in 100 for people aged 75–79, and as high as 30 in 100 at age 90–94.

Some of the risk factors for dementia are actually within your control. For example: smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise all seem to increase the risk of dementia. It’s also thought that poor diet might play a part.

There are some other health conditions that increase your risk of dementia, including unmanaged diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, particularly later in life, Parkinson’s disease, normal pressure hydrocephalus, Down’s syndrome, and some forms of multiple sclerosis.

Dementia generally doesn’t run in the family, but there’s evidence that it can in some situations. Alzheimer’s is one of the causes that can have a genetic link: someone with a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s will be at slightly increased risk.

When looking at the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, the key thing to remember is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, one is a type of the other. A person with Alzheimer’s also has dementia, but only some people with dementia have Alzheimer’s.

Find out more in our extensive information about dementia

Bupa is the UK’s leading provider of dementia care. Find out more about caring for a loved one living with dementia.

Dr Steven Luttrell
Medical Director for Development at Bupa UK

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