Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s—Which Is It?

Old Couple Walking Hand and Hand

Because the words “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” are often used interchangeably, the two are very different. Even though many of the symptoms of dementia can be similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s patients, there are important differences. Perhaps most importantly, dementia is not a disease (it is considered a syndrome), and Alzheimer’s is a disease. Dementia is an umbrella term, used to describe a number of symptoms which impact a person’s memory, ability to communicate and daily performance of activities. Although symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s can overlap, medically they should be treated as separate issues.

Dementia May Have Many Causes

While Alzheimer’s actually falls under the dementia category, there is more than one type of dementia. As an example, mixed dementia occurs when there is a simultaneous occurrence of abnormalities in the brain which are linked to more than one cause of dementia. This type of mixed dementia can include Alzheimer’s disease, along with post-stroke dementia, also known as vascular dementia. Rather than memory loss, the individual who has this particular type of mixed dementia will experience difficulty organizing and impaired judgment.

Dementia Can Accompany Other Diseases

Symptoms of dementia can arise from other diseases or illnesses, while Alzheimer’s is a disease all on its own. Diseases like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Creutzfeldt-Jacob diseases can all lead to symptoms of dementia. Parkinson’s patients may develop symptoms of dementia over a long period of time. Younger people who develop one of the diseases above—or certain other diseases—can develop dementia although it is typically thought of as a condition of aging.

Alzheimer’s the Most Common Form of Dementia

The Mayo Clinic explains there are clear differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia, particularly in the early stages. In fact, the second most common form of dementia—dementia with Lewy Bodies—does not cause memory loss like Alzheimer’s does. Rather than memory loss, dementia with Lewy Bodies often brings confusion and hallucinations. Alzheimer’s is the number one type of dementia (60 to 80 percent of all cases), and is typically marked, even early on, with loss of memory.  Although only about 5 percent of Alzheimer’s patients develop the disease prior to the age of 65, other diseases, which can show up in middle age, which will lead to earlier signs of dementia.

Different Types of Dementia Require Different Treatments

Some of the other types of dementia, such as vascular dementia caused by high blood pressure, alcohol-related dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Parkinson’s dementia not only have different causes, they also require very different treatments. Dementia is often described as a non-reversible decline in a person’s mental functions, however, to be considered dementia, the symptoms must interfere with the person’s daily life.

PET Scan Can Now Show Specific Alzheimer’s Proteins in the Brain

Alzheimer’s is a specific disease which slowly—and irreversibly—destroys a person’s thinking skills and their memory. As the disease progresses, the person may be unable to carry out even a simple task. While biological evidence of the disease exists—amyloid tangles and plaques in the brain—no cure for the disease is imminent. A new type of PET scan uses a tracer which binds to the specific proteins in the brain, allowing a definitive diagnosis. While a handful of other countries test for the presence of these specific proteins in cerebral spinal fluid, this is not a method used in the United States to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

Tests to Diagnose Dementia

Mental skill challenge tests are usually administered to a person suspected of having dementia. There must be two or three cognitive areas of decline in order for a diagnosis of dementia. One example of these tests is known as the Hopkins verbal learning test. The patient is asked to memorize—then recall—a list of 12 words. Some of these words may be similar in nature. Another test asks patients to connect a complex series of numbers and letters by drawing lines and is administered to determine the person’s driving skills.

Alzheimer’s Diagnosis Tests

Unfortunately, there are no current tests which definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors will typically observe the patient, and painstakingly rule out other possibilities. In the past, a firm diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was not possible until an autopsy had been performed. Today, the new PET scan is said to be 95 percent accurate, however, it is not used often—mostly only in patients who have very atypical Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Estate Planning Even More Important Should Dementia or Alzheimer’s Strike

While every person over the age of 21 should have some type of will, trust, and a living will, this issue can be even more important in the event a person is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. A living will (also known as an advanced healthcare directive) allows a designated person to handle all the person’s affairs should they become incapacitated. When a person is diagnosed with a disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia, his or her family members are operating on emotional overload.

When financial and legal decisions are added to the mix, it can truly be overwhelming. Because Alzheimer’s and dementia are not diseases with a “cure” the changes to the person affected can be financially and personally devastating. However, because the changes brought on by Alzheimer’s and dementia typically occur in degrees, by the time a diagnosis is at hand, it could be too late to make any legal or financial arrangements for incapacitation. The threat of Alzheimer’s and dementia is hardly one in a million issue. Consider these facts regarding Alzheimer’s and dementia:

  • The sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. is Alzheimer’s;
  • Between 2000 and 2015, the number of deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased by 123%;
  • Alzheimer’s or dementia causes a staggering one in three deaths for seniors—that is more deaths than the combination of prostate cancer and breast cancer deaths;
  • Currently, there are 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s—by 2050, this number will increase to 14 million;
  • A person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. every 65 seconds;
  • According to the World Health Organization there are about 47 million people living with dementia across the globe—a number which is expected to triple by 2030.

As you can clearly see, your odds of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s at some point in your life is relatively high. It is imperative that you ensure you engage in comprehensive estate planning in the event you are one of those struck by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Getting Help from an Alabama Estate Planning Attorney

No matter your current age or financial situation, it is extremely important that you consider engaging in estate planning. Should you be involved in a serious accident, or develop a grave disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s, having your estate plan in place can make a huge difference for your loved ones. The Martinson & Beason estate planning attorneys can help guide you through the process of wills, trusts, and living wills. Our attorneys are highly skilled in estate planning. We are always loyal to you and your specific causes, always offering prompt, comprehensive attention to your needs. Contact the law firm of Martinson & Beason today.