Dementia versus Alzheimer’s, what’s the difference?
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. Everyone with Alzheimer’s has dementia, BUT not everyone diagnosed with dementia has Alzheimer’s.
Dementia - also called a neurocognitive disorder to add to the confusion - is an umbrella term. A medical parallel is cancer. Cancer is the umbrella term, and there are a lot of different types. Each of the types causes different symptoms, progresses differently, and is treated differently. The same is true for dementia.
All dementias cause changes in cognition - the way a person thinks. One way of diagnosing dementia is by measuring these different ways of thinking. According to the psychology diagnostics manual (DSM VI), dementia is when thinking changes in at least two of six ways.
Six ways of thinking dementia can change:
- Complex Attention helps us not get distracted, focus, and multi-task.
- Executive Functioning is our ability to perform tasks, including planning, organizing, and making decisions.
- Memory, recall of past events, as well as retention of current ones for future recall.
- Language can be affected in three main ways:
- Expressive language is the ability to call up the desired word in a given moment.
- Receptive language is hearing a word and knowing what concept it connects to.
- Grammar and syntax refers to the way sentences are structured.
- Perceptual - Motor is understanding what one sees and being able to coordinate physical action.
- Social-Cognition can range from the perception of others’ emotions to decreased inhibition.
Changes in at least two of these six ways occur in any type of dementia. Depending on what changes, we can get a clue to the specific type of dementia someone is experiencing. There are over ten types of dementia, each with a unique trajectory and character. Types of dementia are often named for the brain region they change most, such as Frontotemporal Dementia, or for their cause, such as Lewy Body Dementia. This is where Alzheimer’s comes in and where it gets a little complicated.
Alzheimer’s Disease gets its name from the doctor who first studied it. Alois Alzheimer has a patient exhibiting symptoms of what we now call Alzheimer’s. Upon death, he found plaques and tangles in her brain and assumed them to be the cause of her cognitive change.
A lot of time and money has been spent focusing on finding a cure for these plaques and tangles. Thanks to early attention from the NIH, Alzheimer’s research has by far the most public recognition and funding.
It is here that the plot thickens. A longitudinal study of nuns has shown that while those nuns exhibiting Alzheimer’s symptoms in life were found to have the plaques and tangles in death. Yet, other nuns who showed no symptoms of dementia had them as well. Dementia in general and Alzheimer’s in specific still remains very much a mystery.
Experientially Alzheimer’s differs from other dementias. Alzheimer’s has a slow and steady trajectory. Alzheimer’s most prominent cognitive changes are around memory and learning. More recent memories tend to be forgotten first and then recede into the past.
You’ve Been Diagnosed, Now What?
Dementia versus Alzheimer’s, why does it matter? Using precise language to name an experience helps us to find others who are experiencing the same thing. It helps us to share tips and observations. It can help us come together and discover how to live well with dementia.
- Don’t panic. You are not alone. Many people are living well with dementia. Get plugged in to the many advocacy organizations. Hear success stories and find resources.
- Make new friends. There are many health benefits of socialization. Find a support group or memory cafe and make relationships with others on the dementia journey too!
- Build your team. Who in your life will be on this journey with you? Rally them around you now. Talk about your experience, what you want, and how you feel. Strategize together the best way to partner on your dementia journey.
- Make a plan. Research your specific type of dementia to understand the changes you may experience and the timeline. Think about what you want your life to look like. It can be super scary to face this head-on. Just like the monster under the bed, I promise it is much less scary in the light of day. Talking about it makes it better. Think about what matters to you most and how you can continue to do that. Maybe you will need to make some modifications to your home or start using technology for those with dementia as a support. Get creative!
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s? It matters, and it doesn’t. What matters most is getting as much information as you can and applying it to live the best life possible.