There is a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, the fundamental difference is that dementia actually refers to a set of symptoms; dementia is not a disease.
It’s an easy enough mistake to make. Broadly speaking, Alzheimer’s causes dementia, but so does Parkinson’s disease. There are also different types of dementia, like vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy Bodies and frontotemporal dementia. Still, these diseases are often characterized in terms of the same symptoms that make up dementia — like trouble with language, short-term memory loss and poor judgment, among others — so family members and friends may wonder how doctors know which is which.
When a person develops some of the symptoms that comprise dementia, doctors can run blood tests and perform tests for mental acuity that will help them identify which disease is causing the symptoms. In some cases, the early stages of a disease can help with a diagnosis, too. Patients with dementia with Lewy Bodies, for instance, are not necessarily forgetful, but their attention spans shorten. They can also have visual hallucinations, and they can move between lucidity and confusion. The same is not true for Parkinson’s.
A true diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is only possible after death, but symptoms and early signs can point toward Alzheimer’s and, so, help doctors and family make some decisions about treatment and care. The Alzheimer’s Association lists 10 symptoms but warns that a patient may only experience a few of them.
Memory loss, of course, is one symptom, particularly memory loss that interferes with daily living. Forgetting appointments is common, for example. The difference between memory loss from Alzheimer’s and memory loss from just being busy is that an Alzheimer’s patient will not remember the appointment later, either. A normal lapse is just that — a lapse.
Solving problems or completing familiar tasks can also be difficult for a person with Alzheimer’s. Getting lost on the way home or just forgetting the way altogether is an example. Problems with perception can appear, too. The patient may not know what time of day it is, and words on a page will be difficult to decipher.
There are more, and we encourage you to visit the Alzheimer’s Association website for more information. The association also has resources for caregivers.