When an elderly person shows signs of becoming forgetful, their friends and family may jump to the conclusion they have some form of dementia. It can be a worrying time for all involved.

But becoming forgetful does not necessarily mean a person has dementia. It may be nothing, or it could be a sign of infection, other medical conditions or simply that you are doing too much or have significant stress in your life.

It’s important to understand the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, in order to understand a diagnosis and receive the correct treatment.

Dementia is the umbrella term used to describe a number of symptoms that are associated with memory loss and cognitive decline, while Alzheimer’s is a disease that actually causes dementia.

The failure of some people to distinguish between the two conditions can cause confusion.

What is dementia?

Dementia refers to a range of symptoms that are the result of a deterioration of brain function.

The symptoms associated with dementia include:

  • loss of memory,
  • problems with thinking, learning, memory and language,
  • behavioural and emotional problems, and
  • difficulties performing daily activities.

The most common forms of dementia are:

  • vascular dementia,
  • dementia with Lewy bodies,
  • dementia from Parkinson’s disease,
  • frontotemporal dementia,
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and
  • Alzheimer’s disease.

Some people may have two or more types of dementia, which is called mixed dementia.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common condition that causes dementia.

For a person with Alzheimer’s disease, abnormal structures, called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’, build up in the brain, disrupting nerve cells and affecting the way they communicate with each other. Eventually the nerve cells die.

Alzheimer’s usually begins with mild memory loss. Other symptoms may include:

  • having trouble recalling events,
  • difficulty learning new things
  • trouble finding the right word,
  • trouble solving problems,
  • trouble making decisions,
  • difficulty perceiving three-dimensional objects, or
  • being irritable.

As the disease progresses, the symptoms become more severe, and new symptoms may appear. Eventually, people with Alzheimer’s disease may need around-the-clock support.

Is there a cure?

While both dementia and Alzheimer’s are associated with the cognitive decline that often accompanies ageing, they are not considered a normal part of ageing.

Other forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s get worse over time, and unfortunately there is no cure. Medications are sometimes used in the treatment of dementia, but they can only slow the condition’s progress or treat symptoms; they will not cure dementia.

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