Is it Alzheimer's or dementia?

Most of us have heard of Alzheimer’s disease, but what is it, and how does it differ from dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease affects around one in 10 Australians aged over 65 years and about one third of those older than 85. 

The terms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are often used interchangeably. However, while both terms are related, they refer to different things. We explain the difference.

What is dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. Dementia is not a normal part of ageing – it can happen to anyone, but it is more common in people older than 65. There are more than 100 diseases that can cause dementia; Alzheimer’s disease is one of them.

Currently, more than 300,000 Australians live with dementia, with this number expected to triple by 2050.

Cognitive functions affected by dementia can include memory, personality, language skills, understanding information, spatial skills, judgement and attention. If two or more of these functions are significantly impaired, dementia may be diagnosed.

People with dementia often have trouble solving problems, experience memory problems, and experience learning difficulties. They may also become disoriented. Changes in their mood or behaviour can also occur, with agitated, anxious or aggressive behaviour being quite common.
Dementia is usually a progressive disease, which means it gradually spreads through the brain with symptoms getting worse over time.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease (pronounced AHLZ-hi-merz) is the most common cause of dementia and was first described in 1906 by German physician Dr Alois Alzheimer. 
Two types of Alzheimer’s disease have been identified:
  • Sporadic Alzheimer’s disease — the most common type of Alzheimer’s, usually occurring in people over the age of 65.
  • Familial Alzheimer’s disease — caused by a genetic mutation, this is very rare, with symptoms often appearing from the age of 40 or 50 years. 
While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet known, scientists believe it may be caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors affecting the brain over time.
Elderly lady and health professional

Preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

There is currently no certain way to prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s. The biggest risk factors are age and genetics, which we obviously can’t control. However, adopting a ‘brain healthy’ lifestyle can reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Things you can do include:
  • Challenging your brain with mentally stimulating activities
  • Participating in social activities and connecting with others
  • Eating a healthy diet (with low fat, sugar and alcohol intake)
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
  • Managing heart risk factors such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Managing diabetes, because diabetes increases your risk of developing dementia
  • Quitting smoking.

Ongoing research

There is no single definitive diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s and dementia, so diagnosis may involve a series of tests including formal medical assessments, a physical examination, memory tests, and possibly, brain scans.

Many families suspect their loved one has developed a form of dementia long before a formal diagnosis is made. On average, families notice and live with these symptoms for about three years before a diagnosis.

There is still a lot we don’t know about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. However, research is ongoing, with a focus on the causes, prevention and risk reduction. Researchers also hope to develop better ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, though, sadly, there is currently no cure for dementia.

If you think a loved one is exhibiting signs of early dementia, speak to your doctor. The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the easier it is for everyone to make plans for the future.
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