Alzheimer’s vs Dementia: Know the Difference

Research now shows that in half of the cases studied, patients with cognitive issues actually had a combination of conditions, instead of Alzheimer’s alone. This is significant because some of these conditions may be preventable or treatable, making it it’s absolutely essential to get screened by a medical professional and determine the right diagnoses behind symptoms such as memory issues, problem solving abilities or even changes in personality.

There are over 50 conditions that can cause or mimic Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms. That’s why it’s so important to understand the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, because once you understand the hidden cause of symptoms, treatment can often slow their progression, help them to subside, or in certain cases, reverse them altogether. These conditions include:

(Currently) Irreversible Conditions

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia where treatment can improve the patient’s condition, but ultimately the patient will become progressively worse over time. Other types of irreversible dementias include:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal lobar degeneration
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Slow-growing brain tumors
  • Infections of the central nervous system such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, AIDS dementia, neurosyphilis

It’s important to recognize that even though irreversible, quality of life can be greatly improved for you or a loved one if the condition is detected earlier rather than later. There are treatments that can slow the progression of these diseases, and support is available that can help both patient and their families live with and manage their condition to get the best quality of life possible.

Potentially Reversible Conditions 

These conditions can respond to treatment and in certain cases, can restore the cognitive abilities of the patient. When comparing Alzheimer’s vs. Dementia, some of the conditions in this category can be easier to identify, as they include other clear symptoms which help in determining the right diagnoses.

Tumors—Both benign and malignant (cancerous) tumors in the brain can impact cognitive ability and personality. Early symptoms of slow-growing tumors can mimic dementia or Alzheimer’s, making it difficult to spot the difference. But, depending on the location, these tumors can also trigger symptoms such as headaches, seizures and vomiting, which can start to clarify the diagnoses. The tumor’s location can also determine whether it is operable to improve a patient’s cognitive ability.

Subdural hematomas—A Hematoma is a blood clot in the area is between the surface of the brain and the dura, which is the thin membrane that covers the brain. A head trauma can cause a subdural hematoma and for the elderly this could even be a minor injury. But if the hematoma is large enough (some will continue to build over time as they fill with blood), the symptoms can mimic Alzheimer’s. The good news is that removing a clot within the early weeks after the injury may help to restore cognitive ability. But the challenge is getting a correct diagnosis early enough after the initial injury.

Thyroid disease—Both hyperthyroidism (overproduction of thyroid hormones) and hypothyroidism (underproduction of thyroid hormones) can mimic symptoms of dementia. Detected by a blood test, both conditions can be treated. Hyperthyroidism treatment can involve removing the thyroid surgically or using radioactive iodine to destroy it, with the patient then undergoing thyroid replacement therapy. Hypothyroidism can also be treated with hormones. But it should be noted that these treatments will not always reverse symptoms of dementia.

Pernicious anemia—A rare condition where an individual cannot absorb the vitamin B12 from food. Compared to Alzheimer’s or Dementia, this condition does exhibit familiar symptoms such as confusion, irritability and apathy. But it can be treated through B12 injections if treatment is started early enough.

Hydrocephalus—This condition is commonly known as “water on the brain,” and it involves too much cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain. Common causes are head trauma, a brain hemorrhage, or meningitis (inflammation of the membrane covering the brain). But this condition also occurs spontaneously without a detectable preceding illness. This condition can cause dementia versus Alzheimer’s, and its symptoms can include difficulty walking and thinking as well as a loss of bladder control. It can be treated through a surgical procedure to drain the excess fluid, if treatment is provided not too long after the first appearance of symptoms.

Delirium—Delirium can resemble dementia symptoms, but these symptoms develop in a matter of hours or days, as opposed to the months or years that it takes dementia or Alzheimer’s symptoms to form conclusively. Delirium is also marked by a change in the consciousness of the patient, something not occurring with other forms of dementia. The dementia in these cases is typically linked with medical emergencies, as it is usually part of a life-threatening illness such as  a severe reaction to medication or a side effect after surgery. But many of these conditions are reversible with the right treatment.

Depression—Depression can mimic symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, such as forgetfulness or a lack of attention to important daily tasks. But there is one key difference: With depression, the changes in mood come before the cognitive symptoms. With Alzheimer’s, the mental decline comes first. There are a wide range of treatments for depression, including therapy and medication.

Alcoholism—Abusing alcohol for years can impair thinking and attention span in a way that resembles Alzheimer’s or dementia. Treatment for alcoholism can restore part of this mental functioning, but a condition such as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome can be irreversible. This condition is related to a lack of Thiamine due to the poor nutrition common with those suffering from alcoholism.

Out of all the conditions listed here, there is one common denominator: Know your enemy. Many of these conditions can be successfully treated—if they are diagnosed early enough. You and your family can get screened through your Annual Wellness Visit, a yearly example that can detect cognitive issues through simple, non-invasive tests that are similar in some ways to the tests you may remember from school. The Annual Wellness Visit is a powerful tool to possibly reverse symptoms, or if it is an irreversible condition, you can work with your health care practitioner and Georgia Memory Net to develop a treatment plan that provides you with the best support possible. To understand what is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia, or one of the many other conditions that can cause cognitive decline, you must first have all the facts on the condition you’re facing. And effective screening is definitely a strong first step.

Georgia Memory Net at a Glance

What is Georgia Memory Net and why does it exist? There’s so much information about Alzheimer’s and related dementias in Georgia, and how to diagnose and treat them, that it can become overwhelming. We’ve done our best to simplify the info into a clear one-page infographic.

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