What's the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer's?

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

If you’re not sure of the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you’re not alone. Here's a simple explanation to understand the difference.

To put it simply, dementia is not a disease in its own right. Dementia is the name for a group of symptoms that commonly include problems with memory, thinking, problem solving, language and perception.

Dementia is caused by different diseases that affect the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. Some other common types of dementia include vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.

While there is a relationship between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, there are key differences between the two.

What is dementia?

When a person receives a dementia diagnosis they should also learn what type of dementia they have. This is not always the case, and sometimes the term 'dementia' is used to describe the symptoms they may be experiencing. These symptoms might include memory loss or difficulties with language or concentration.

Dementia is caused by diseases which damage the brain by causing a loss of nerve cells. Alzheimer’s disease is one specific cause of dementia (and the most common). Some other causes of dementia include:

  • Vascular dementia, where a lack of oxygen to the brain causes nerve cells to die. This can be caused by a stroke, a series of mini strokes or a disease of the small blood vessels in the brain
  • Mixed dementia, where someone has more than one type of dementia and a mix of symptoms
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies, where abnormal structures – Lewy bodies – form in the brain and cause the death of nerve cells
  • Frontotemporal dementia, where clumps of abnormal protein form in front and side parts of the brain and cause the death of nerve cells.

The symptoms that someone with dementia experiences depends on the damaged parts of the brain and the disease causing the dementia. Dementia is progressive which means it will get worse over time.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a physical disease that affects the brain. Abnormal structures called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’ build up inside the brain. These disrupt how nerve cells work and communicate with each other, and eventually cause them to die. There is also a shortage of some important chemicals in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Reduced levels of these chemicals mean that messages don’t travel around as well as they should.

Alzheimer’s disease usually begins gradually with mild memory loss. The person may have difficulty recalling recent events or learning new information. Other symptoms may include difficulties finding the right words, solving problems, making decisions, or perceiving things in three dimensions.

As Alzheimer’s progresses, problems with memory loss, communication, reasoning and orientation become more severe. The person will need more day-to-day support from those who care for them.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, treatments may temporarily ease some symptoms or slow down their progression in some people.

Does Alzheimer’s Society support people with dementia, as well as Alzheimer’s disease?

Yes, we do! Here at Alzheimer’s Society, we’re united against all types of dementia.

Until the day we find a cure, we’re striving to improve the lives of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and all kinds of dementia.

Find local support services

For people living with dementia and their carers.

Search support services

Next steps

Call our National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 11 22 if you’d like to talk to someone for information, support or advice.

Do you have another question about dementia that you would like our experts to answer? Let us know in the comments below - all suggestions are welcome.

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An excellent, easy to understand summary. Thank you.

My partner has been diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia but isn’t inclined to use any of the excellent support that is provided in our area by Alzheimer’s Support. He needs to talk to someone who is experienced with FTD. I will follow up your suggestions.

Hi Jilly. Thank you for contacting us.

I am sorry to read of the difficulties you are experiencing in helping your partner access support from the local Alzheimer’s Society office. I was just wondering if you have spoken to the Dementia Adviser at the local office? They will have an understanding of FTD and should be able to answer any queries you both may have.

Also, I thought it might be helpful to supply you with the link to the Rare Dementia Support group for FTD. They are experienced in FTD and provide information and support to people with FTD, and their families. The Rare Dementia Support group is currently trying to develop practical solutions to common problems, so they may be well worth getting in touch with. Visit the site here: http://www.raredementiasupport.org/ftd/

In addition, we have an active online community where people affected by dementia – including FTD – share their experiences with each other and provide support. This may be beneficial to you both. Find out more about Talking Point here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/talking-point-our-online-comm…

I do hope this is helpful. Please feel free to contact us again or call our Helpline if you need any further information or support. Our Helpline is open Monday to Wednesday (9am-8pm), Thursday to Friday (9am–5pm) and Saturday to Sunday (10am-4pm), and can be reached on 0300 222 11 22.

Best regards

Helpline Adviser

I have 1st hand experience with FTD....please contact me for help and advice ...dont give up

I was diagnosed with FTD earlier this year, unfortunately once I was diagnosed I seem to have been discharged from seeing the consultant again. I thought that I would receive another appointment to discuss the diagnosis and what would happen next. Unfortunately I have not heard any more. My mother had dementia & guess that it was probably the same as mine from what I can remember - so have an insight as to what will happen. It was good to read your description regarding FTD and glad that I managed to find your society online to find out more about it.

My mother who is 87 was diagnosed almost 3 years ago with Vascular Dementia but we are beginning to wonder if she doesn't have Alzheimer's. Either way she is declining rapidly and it is very hard to watch this as she has always been a very healthy woman.

Hello Anna,

Thank you for getting in touch. We're sorry to hear you're going through such a difficult time at the moment. If you would like to speak with a helpline adviser for any advice or support, please don’t hesitate to get in touch on 0300 222 11 22. The National Dementia Helpline is open Monday to Wednesday (9am-8pm), Thursday to Friday (9am–5pm) and Saturday to Sunday (10am-4pm).

We hope this helps.

I am a registered nurse and I work with dementia patients. I am walking on the memory of the residents who died and the one is alive and suffering with diseases.
they have different types of dementia and is very sad. they don't know between day and night.
and these people are well.educated but not all staff know how to deal with dementia. my heart goes out to them.

My Husband has mixed dementia ,(Alzheimers and vascula dementia.)
Its been hard getting our heads round it since diagnosis in 2017 and it took me 2 years to get him to a doctor and diagnosed. He would not admit he had a problem which was the hard bit but now he is coming to terms with it and happy to talk about it as some people dont.
I have heard there is something called sing for your brain or something? My husband will not go to any groups but he loves singing and was in a band years ago so thought it might be good for him.
Do you have any details?

Hello Ann,

Thank you for getting in touch. It can be hard to come to terms with a diagnoses for all parties, but it is good to hear that your husband is now accepting and is happy to talk about it.

Singing is certainly good for anyone. When a person has dementia, it can be wonderfully therapeutic. Music and singing can transport a person to memories and wonderful places. It can instill a joyful feeling that can stimulate conversation and reminiscence.

If you are looking for local support, the following link will take you to a search bar where a postcode can flag up services local to you that may be of interest. There may well be a ‘Singing for the Brain’ group near you. It is one of our most popular groups. However, as you've mentioned your husband is not keen on groups, it might be worth a try just once, if there is one near you. This is something you could both attend and enjoy.

Enter your postcode and search your local services: http://bit.ly/2mKSGIm

Otherwise, making a ‘playlist for life’ of his favorite songs and melodies (and perhaps songs he used to perform) will pull together a wonderful resource to sing along to.

You could create the list and download it onto an MP3 player. With a set of headphones or a speaker, you will have a fabulous source of entertainment. This playlist can be used whenever needed; in the car, on holiday, in times of stress to calm or just for the pure joy of singing. You could have different playlists for certain moods and occasions.

You might like to think about the memories you have from your life together and what sound track accompanied them. The music will prompt memories and stories that can be written down to accompany the list. This could even be shared with family or friends.

I will add some links below to some music sites that may be helpful and inspire you:

https://songaminuteman.com/pages/our-story

https://www.playlistforlife.org.uk/

There are many sites online where you can find ideas for music to sing along to. YouTube and Spotify can provide free resources to help you and your husband source your inspirations.

There are also many choirs popping up all over the place, which may not be specifically for those with dementia. However, they may be worth looking into as well, if he would consider it.

You may also find it helpful to visit our online community 'Talking Point', as other people may have discussed similar issues. The forum can be found at: https://forum.alzheimers.org.uk/

Finally, I am not sure whether you have read our blog titled 'What is mixed dementia?' This may be useful: https://blog.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-insight/mixed-dementia/

I do hope this is helpful. Please feel free to contact us again or call the National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122 for further information, advice or support. Our advisers are available Monday to Friday (9am-5pm), extending to 8pm on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; Saturday to Sunday (10am-4pm).

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Helpline Adviser

Thank you and i have done lists on Spotify and also have our own Karaoke system in our house and often have a sing song. Hes only early stages so far and im taking so many photos as he has no short term memory and forgets nights out and what happened. So far hes still working even though 80 but i have semi retired 60 to help him work as long as he can because apart from this you would not know hes 80. He is a piano tuner..music again haha.

Hello again Ann,

It sounds like you have a lovely musical home with the Karaoke system, and also the Spotify playlists.

With those - and your husband’s piano playing - it sounds very positive and stimulating. Even better to hear that he is still working. I wish you both well and I hope your days continue to be filled with music, singing and laughter. Do come back to us should you need to.

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Helpline Advisor

My 85 year old father in law has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and dementia plus vascular dementia. Mother in law is the same age but seems in denial and keeps saying he can dress and shower himself plus eats what I give him. Father in law struggles with conversation and explaining what he wants. Would not go to any club or support group. How can the family help?

Hi Jan, I’m so sorry to hear about your father in law.

It’s quite common for older couples to stick together and refuse to accept that things have changed. And it can be difficult for people with dementia to understand that they might enjoy the stimulation of meeting new people and getting involved in activities. It often feels safer to keep to a familiar routine. In the same way, your mother-in-law may not appreciate that she may need support to understand dementia better and benefit from help and support to care for her husband as the disease progresses.

In these circumstances, other family members can act in their best interests by helping to get the support that they may need, rather that hoping that they will make these contacts themselves:

Assessment for care and support in England
http://bit.ly/2nqhDKE

There may be local Alzheimer’s Society services nearby that can offer face-to-face help, advice and support to both of them. Details can be found at:
https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-us/contact-us/alzheimers-society-regional-offices

And for details of other dementia support and activities in the area you can follow this link:
https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/find-support-near-you

You may also find it helpful to visit our online forum 'Talking Point', as other people may have discussed similar issues. You don't have to sign up to search through the forum, so you could just read other peoples' posts and find out about their experiences. The forum can be found at:
http://forum.alzheimers.org.uk

Anyone from the family can call our Helpline too: 0300 222 1122.

Hi my 82 ye old mum has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and she is totally unaware that anything is wrong. She also blames things in being tired. What's your view on whether I try to tell her that she has now been officially diagnosed? I've had a discussion with her doctor and he says he's not a fan of telling people, he thinks it's better than she continues to be happy ' in her own little world'
I don't know if she's aware that she is forgetting things, she doesn't appear to, but surely it's better that she knows why she's having medication?

Hi Tracie, thanks for your comment. I am so sorry to learn that your mum is living with dementia, hopefully I’ll be able to give you some information to help with your query.

Lack of insight and awareness is a common symptom of dementia, therefore it may be possible that your mum is not aware of what is going on for her. Everyone will experience dementia differently, so what works for your mum may not work for others.

My advice therefore is to take your lead from your mum. If she is expressing confusion around taking medication or asking questions, and you feel that she will be able to understand and tolerate the answer, then it may be advisable to answer her questions.
Please be aware, however, that your mum’s cognitions and understanding will have been affected by dementia so her ability to reason and rationalise may be different from you or I. Her memory may also be affected, therefore she may not remember your explanations and it can be unhelpful to constantly remind someone of what they have forgotten.

Any stress or anxiety can negatively affect the symptoms of dementia, so this may have been what the GP was referring to when advising to keep her happy in her own little world.
Pointing out a person’s failures, such as memory loss or reinforcing negatives, such as a dementia diagnosis, can affect a person’s self-esteem, which again will be unhelpful.

If your mum is understanding that her symptoms are due to tiredness then this is her absolute reality of the situation, some family members and carers find it helpful to respect their loved one’s reality rather than dispute it.

I do hope that this has been helpful. Here are some factsheets you might find useful also:

Communicating: http://bit.ly/2oTxBR0
Understanding and supporting a person with dementia: http://bit.ly/2rwdOY0

Please don’t hesitate to contact our Helpline on 0300 222 1122 if you require any further information, advice or support.

You may also find it helpful to visit our online forum 'Talking Point', as other people may have discussed similar issues. You don't have to sign up to search through the forum, so you could just read other peoples' posts and find out about their experiences. The forum can be found at: http://forum.alzheimers.org.uk/forum.php

We also have a Live Online Advice service which is available Monday to Wednesday (9am–12pm, and 6pm-8pm) and Thursday to Friday (9am-12pm), which can be found at http://www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/home_info.php?homepageID=428

Kind regards,

Helpline advisor

Hi. Having read all the various comments which I have found most helpful. Where do I go to express my concerns regarding myself in the first instance to even find out if this is affecting me? I am 70 active healthy and full of the desire for life. Thank you hopefully for your comments/advice. Don

Hi Don, thanks for your comment.

This page on our website is good starting place for anyone who is worried about their memory: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/symptoms-and-diagnosis/wor…

If you are worried about your memory or experiencing other dementia symptoms, we always recommend speaking to your GP straight away. You can also call our helpline for more advice or with any questions you might have. Details of the helpline can be found at this link: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/national-dementia-helpline

If you're just interested in learning more about things that can increase/reduce a person's risk of getting dementia, this is a good page to explore: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/risk-factors-and-prevention

Hope this helps for now. If you have any other questions please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Kind regards,

Kyle (Alzheimer's Society)

My father is being diagnosed with vascular dementia I am so so sad about it this 3 years ago just when he was 68 I am just worried that it could be genetic and I could have it one day I can see you s an horrible disease... is that the case? His mum ( my grandma) had in the eighties arteriosclerosis which she died at the age of 84 .. is that connected to him etc .. many thanks in advance.! Kind regards

Hi Lorella, I’m so sorry to hear about your father’s diagnosis. I hope he is doing well.

When a close relative develops dementia many people worry that their condition may be heritable – that is, passed down from parent to child in the form of a ‘disease’ gene. Most forms of dementia do not work like this. Only a very small proportion of people with vascular dementia will have inherited such a gene from their parents. In most cases, vascular dementia is caused by the same kinds of factors that cause heart disease and strokes, such as smoking and high blood pressure. You can read more about the condition in our factsheet, 'What is vascular dementia?';

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/about-dementia/types-dementia/vascular-de…

Or you can call the National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 11 22 if you would like to talk about your father’s condition and how best to support him.

My Mum suffered Meningococcal meningitus.
This left her brain damaged.
We were told she would have early onset Dementia.
It's 12years on now and she is deteriorating rapidly.
Her stubborn proud husband won't discuss her future and won't relinquish power of attorney. He's in his 80s and in poor health.
I hover around just waiting for something awful to happen.
I have managed to implement day care for 2 days and carers going in just recently.
He tries to keep her in bed on the days she isn't going to day care or when my sister or myself are not able to take her for the day.
We both work and have families.
So difficult as her husband isn't my father.

My mom is 76 yrs old & has dementia. We have never been told what kind. I started seeing signs a year or so ago and it progressed rapidly. She was living in a very bad situation without proper food, her meds & dr care. She was literally cut off from any of her family & friends being able to visit or have any say in her care. Five weeks ago I finally got control of her and after 2 weeks in the hospital with extremely high blood pressure & a brain bleed I had to put her in a nursing home. She talks to pictures, thinks people that have been dead many years comes to see her. She can’t remember anything you tell her for more than a minute. She has to wear diapers which she takes off constantly. She can’t dress herself properly nor has any idea of personal hygiene. She cries to go home daily and when I visit which I do every other day she begs the whole time for me to take her home. It is heartbreaking and I leave in tears. The anxiety raises her blood pressure, gives her very bad headaches & causes her to hardly be able to get her breath. She is on Paxil plus gets Ativan 3 times a day. Is it normal that she deteriorated so rapidly and is she likely to remain begging to go home and crying so much? Should she be adjusting to the nursing home by now if she’s ever going to? She’s been there a month. Could she need to be on different meds since these aren’t helping? My heart is broken for her & I feel so helpless.

Hi Paula

I am so sorry to hear about your mom and the sad results of her dementia. The behaviour you describe is unfortunately a common consequence of changes in her brain, but hard for the family to bear Many people with dementia ask to go home, but it is often an indefinable place that they remember from a long time ago when they felt happy and safe, and some people no longer even recognise their home if they do visit. She hasn’t been in the nursing home long, so it all must feel confusing and strange, but hopefully she will eventually get into a routine and make some connection with others there and feel less anxious. As you see her often, it may be less stressful for her if you wait until she is occupied and slip away rather than any parting that may remind her of home? And some drugs take a while before they are effective.

Admiral Nurses can advise on medication: 0800 888 6678.

Do call our helpline if you would like to talk things through: 0300 222 1122.

My mum has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's very recently. She has short term memory loss and repeats herself over and over again but otherwise seems in good health. She's 82 and does not want to accept the diagnosis. She does daily crossword puzzles and says that shes's not 'stupid'.
We have explained that it doesn't mean she's stupid but she won't listen. She sits with the family and sometimes looks a bit left out because she can't always follow the conversation.
However despite all of this she still loves to play cards and is the life and soul of the game, laughing, teasing others etc. She also plays games with the youngest family members such as cowboys and other gun firing games (not always what we would want but she comes alive).
Do you think it best to continue doing these activities and not worry too much about the diagnosis until more symptoms develop?

Dear Clare,

Thank you for contacting the Alzheimers Society.

It sounds as if your mum is still enjoying her life and continues to do all the things which she enjoys, which is great.

Maybe when you are having family gatherings, perhaps try to focus on your mum and maybe talk about things which she can remember.

Other ways of supporting your mum would be to encourage her to take part in activities she enjoys or find useful. Spending time with her– having a cup of tea and a chat with her, or doing something together helping her to have a daily routine, reminiscence therapy, adapting the environment if this is affecting the person (for example if it’s too hot, cold, loud or bright).
I am enclosing some links to information which you might find helpful, and remember, we are here if you feel it would help to talk to one of our advisers. We may have a local office in your area and here is the link with information on how to search for the nearest Dementia support worker. If you prefer you could contact us and we could search for you:

https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/find-support-near-you

https://bit.ly/2vv7wK0 (What is Alzheimers disease?)
https://bit.ly/2RTrxm3 (Staying healthy)
https://bit.ly/2Tc6AEB (Exercise and physical activity)
https://bit.ly/2CNT6K1 ( Understanding and supporting a person with dementia)
https://bit.ly/2OXGExZ (Council tax)
https://bit.ly/2RuiIzg (Carers looking after yourself)
https://bit.ly/2C5BckH (the dementia guide)
https://bit.ly/2QwnvQ1 (Publications the full list)

You might also want to register on our forum, where there is a section for carers where you can find information and support, and here is the link.
https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/get-support/talking-point-our-online-comm…

In answer to your question regarding your mums refusal to accept her diagnosis, it is very common for people with dementia to have limited or no awareness of their cognitive problems. In some cases this might be because they are in denial, but in most cases it is caused by a lack of insight – the person cannot understand that they have dementia. It is often difficult to know whether a lack of awareness is caused by denial or loss of insight. Problems can also be worsened by loss of short-term memory, where the person is unable to recall the problems they've had or misjudge the frequency of these problems.

Loss of insight is viewed as a physical process that is a part of the disease itself. It is related to loss of activity in specific areas of the frontal cortex.

Denial is a psychological reaction. It is thought of as a ‘defence mechanism’ that helps a person to cope with the situation. Denial is not the person's 'fault' – it operates at an unconscious level.

Denial may resolve over time as the person is gradually able to accept what is happening to them, whereas lack of insight may worsen as dementia progresses.

• Approach the person in a supportive way and be kind, gentle and calm – anger may well make the problem worse. Remember, the person's lack of acceptance is most likely not deliberate.
• Don’t argue with the person, or try force them to face reality – if they lack insight, then getting them to admit they are unwell will be unhelpful because they are not capable of really understanding what this means.
• It may help carers to know that a lack of awareness can be selective – a person may be aware of some symptoms yet completely oblivious to others. This can make it seem like the person is doing it on purpose, but this is not the case.

I hope you find this information helpful, but do come back to us if we can help in any way.

Kind Regards,

Mary

Helpline Adviser (Alzheimer's Society)

My mum was diagnosed with vascular dementia about 5 years ago.My brother has always lived with her and they were really close. Sadly he died 25th September this year. I have been with her since until I will be taking her back home with me.I was advised not to tell her of his death just to keep saying he is out.When it starts to get dark she is constantly asks to go home to see him (even though she is at her home)and also asking where is he until she goes to bed.She gets very anxious Will this ease as time goes by and will things be worse for her
when I take her to my home?

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