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

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