What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? Contrary to popular belief, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not the same, although both terms are often used interchangeably.

The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a set of symptoms affecting memory, thinking or reasoning that can be caused by a number of individual progressive conditions, one of which is Alzheimer’s Disease. When someone is diagnosed with dementia, they are often told what type of dementia they have. Doctors are usually able to diagnose a person depending on the symptoms they are experiencing. A doctor may also recommend a scan that can show structural changes within the brain.

It’s important to remember Alzheimer’s disease is not dementia. It’s actually a type of dementia and a condition in its own right. Other types of dementia include Vascular dementia, Frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies among others.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease occurs when abnormal proteins build up around cells and other proteins within the brain. These build-ups cause damage, and eventually, the connections within the brain will be lost, causing cells to die. As a result, memory loss is the most common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and is usually the first sign.

A person showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease might…

Misplace items around the house such as their wallet or keys

  • Have trouble remembering placenames, recent events or conversations
  • Ask the same question more than once
  • Be unable to think of the right word
  • Get lost in a familiar place
  • Experience sudden changes in mood
  • Forget appointments or significant dates

Other symptoms include trouble with decision making, problem-solving and participating in a conversation.

Is Alzheimer’s disease a natural part of ageing?

A common misconception about dementia is that it is a natural part of ageing. This is not the case. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, making up about 60 – 80% of people diagnosed. Although it is most common in older people, a small number of people under 65 will develop symptoms at an early age. People living with Alzheimer’s often have trouble with their memory, as well as completing common daily activities.

Reduced cognitive ability as we age is natural. However, people living with Alzheimer’s disease often experience memory loss at much greater levels than their peers. As with other types of dementia, a definite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only be obtained post-mortem. However, based upon clinical observations and testing of cognitive processes such as memory, a diagnosis can usually be made.

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease you may be experiencing feelings of hopelessness and depression. It’s important to remember a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t spell the end of your life. Many people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease continue to live long, happy lives surrounded by their loved ones. It’s also important to note the quality of life for people living with dementia has improved drastically in the last century.

The history of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease was named after Dr Alois Alzheimer. In the early 20th century, the German doctor met Auguste Deter. Auguste had been admitted to an institution after she started experiencing issues with her memory and speech. She was also having trouble completing basic day-to-day activities such as writing, and experiencing changes in her behaviour she couldn’t quite explain.

Auguste was well educated and had worked as a seamstress assistant before marrying her husband Carl in 1873 at the age of 23. It wasn’t until the late 1890s that she would develop what we know now as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. At just 50 years old, she was very young to be experiencing these symptoms.

Dr Alzheimer would spend the next few years regularly interviewing Auguste. He would also ask her lots of questions that required the patient to recall parts of her life such as her husband’s name. Auguste’s condition would progress rapidly over the next five years, as recorded by Dr Alzheimer. In response to his questions, Auguste would often respond “Ich habe mich verloren” which translates to “I have lost myself”.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease

Although Alzheimer’s is most common in older people over the age of 65, a very small percentage of people like Auguste will develop early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This usually occurs between the age of 30 and 60 and is thought to only affect 5% of the population.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease poses unique challenges for a person diagnosed. If Auguste were alive today, she would have hopefully been given the support and resources she needed to live to the best of her ability with the disease.

Auguste passed away in 1906. A post-mortem revealed to Dr Alzheimer the two most common abnormalities of Alzheimer’s disease known as plaques and tangles. He also noted Auguste’s brain had shrunk in certain places.

What is the difference between plaques and tangles?

Plaques and tangles are the two most common physical abnormalities found in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Plaques, also known as Amyloid Plaques, are clumps of protein often found between nerve cells in the brain. These plaques clump together to disrupt the function of a cell. Made of beta-amyloid, these plaques are often found in the hippocampus. This section of the human brain is responsible for processing memory and is the reason people living with Alzheimer’s disease often experience difficulties with their memory.

Tangles, or neurofibrillary tangles, are another hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. This abnormality sees the twisting of tau protein threads due to an abnormally large number of phosphate molecules. Essentially, elements within the cell become tangled, forming a knot. These knots can cause the internal network within brain neurons to collapse. As a result, the formation of tangles can inhibit a neuron’s ability to communicate within the brain.

It is suspected that both plaques and tangles are involved in Alzheimer’s disease. However, the exact role of these abnormal structures is unknown. It is not known if they cause Alzheimer’s, or whether they are a by-product of the condition.

Dr Alzheimer paves the way

When Auguste first met Dr Alzheimer in the early 1900s, the solution for people living with dementia was to house them in institutions with little support or proper care. These conditions were often unsanitary and did nothing to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia. Dr Alzheimer’s observations of Auguste would pave the way for future studies into the condition and help us better understand it.

Until very recently Alzheimer’s disease was still thought of as rare. It wasn’t until 1976 that American neurologist Robert Katzman would publish an article in a scientific journal that would propel Alzheimer’s disease into the spotlight. Dr Katzman’s study would result in the formation of a number of different organisations. In 1979, the Alzheimer’s Society UK was founded for the sole purpose of increasing awareness of the disease and raising funds for research. In 2010, Plymouth-based organisation Memory Matters was founded to better support people in our local community here in South West England, and empower people living with dementia to live well.

Thankfully these days, the lives of people living with dementia have improved dramatically. Through research and understanding, we are now able to properly care for people like Auguste, and empower them to live life to the very best of their ability.

Supporting someone with Alzheimer’s disease

If you have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s disease or know someone who was recently diagnosed, then you may be wondering how you can support them.

Social isolation can accompany a diagnosis of dementia. People living with Alzheimer’s disease may become withdrawn and not seek social contact. This is often because they think they might be a burden on their friends and family. This can then lead to further feelings of loneliness and depression. It’s important to keep in contact with your loved one the best you can. Living with Alzheimer’s disease is a frightening prospect. If your loved one behaves differently towards you, try not to take it personally. They are most likely stressed or angry at their situation – not at you.
Continue to treat your loved one with affection and physical touch. Smiling or simply holding a person’s hand can make a huge difference in their mood. It can help to keep the atmosphere light and positive. However, it’s also important you are listening to your loved one’s worries and anxieties and allow them time to express themselves.

You might also like to consider enrolling yourself or your loved one in a local class, support group or therapy session. It’s important that people living with dementia continue to remain active and participate in day-to-day life.

Cognitive Stimulation Therapy

While there is no proven cure for dementia, cognitive stimulation therapy (CST) can make a huge difference for a person living with dementia. CST is a series of sessions where people living with dementia can do activities that use different cognitive skills. These sessions are carried out over several weeks, the purpose being to stimulate thinking and utilise various cognitive processes to maximise a person’s potential.

If you are struggling to understand your loved one’s condition, or simply would like to learn how you can better support them, enrolling in a CST training course can teach you how to better support your friend or family member. It can also give you and your loved one something to do together. Finding a dementia support group in your local community can also make a huge difference in your loved one’s day-to-day life. They will be able to work to improve their mental capabilities together with other people who may have similar conditions.

Memory Café

As Alzheimer’s disease can be a socially isolating condition, taking your loved one out for afternoon tea or brunch can prove a worthwhile activity. If you’re looking for a way to spend the afternoon with a family member or friend who is living with dementia, then a cappuccino and a game of chess at your local memory café may be the solution.

A memory café is a safe, inclusive space that welcomes people living with dementia and their carers, as well as their family and friends. It’s a secure community hub where anyone can enjoy a coffee, a slice of cake and a bit of conversation. There is also often activities that have been designed with dementia in mind. Your loved one will be able to discuss their diagnosis in a safe environment and meet with other people in a similar situation. A memory café can help a person living with dementia to keep active, make connections with others in their community and feel more confident in themselves.

A memory café offers a calm, yet stimulating space that is safe and comfortable for people living with dementia, in which you can spend time together. Your memory café may also host dementia support groups or offer free advice to people living with dementia. Finding a support group in your local community can be hugely beneficial to your loved one. They may feel a little less lonely in the presence of other people living with similar conditions.

Living with Alzheimer’s disease and Memory Matters

So what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms caused by several individual progressive conditions. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, affecting 60 – 80% of people diagnosed with dementia.

Society has progressed massively since Auguste first met Dr Alzheimer in the early 1900s. Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t spell the end of a worthy and fruitful existence. It is simply the next phase of life.

Founded by two nurses who were fed up with the lack of dementia support in their local community, the team at Memory Matters have been empowering people living with dementia to live well for more than a decade. Our ethos is grounded in a persistent goal to provide meaningful services that wholeheartedly support people affected by dementia in our local communities.

If you have recently been diagnosed with dementia yourself or have a loved one who could benefit from compassionate support, then contact Memory Matters today.