Debunking the misconceptions
September is World Alzheimer’s Month, and to raise awareness around the condition, we’re discussing what the differences are between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and debunking the common misconception that they are the same.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, and according to Dementia Australia, it is estimated that there are over 400,000 Australians living with all forms of dementia in 2023. This figure is projected to increase to over 800,000 by 2058.
Alzheimer’s and dementia – the differences
While some people think that Alzheimer’s and dementia are basically the same thing, this is a common misconception, and there is an important distinction to be made.
Like others, Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, which itself is more of a general term to describe the degeneration of cognitive abilities such as:
- Memory loss
- Difficulties with problem-solving
- Communication issues
- Behaviour changes
How one leads to the other
Other types of dementia include vascular dementia and Lewy-body dementia – they are all medical conditions that develop into the symptoms that are then described more generally as dementia. Alzheimer’s behaves in much the same way. Put simply, Alzheimer’s cannot be generally used to describe the broad condition of dementia in the technical sense of the word, rather, it is a disease that affects the brain and then causes dementia.
For example, vascular dementia occurs when blood supply to the brain is affected, which over a long period of time will lead to damage in the brain, which will then bring about dementia. Alzheimer’s affects the brain because it affects the nerve cells and disrupts and ultimately damages the pathways between them. Over time, this will lead to dementia.
Often, the difficulties in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease stem from the fact that in the beginning, symptoms can be very mild. At this point, it’s often not possible to say for certain as to whether mild cognitive impairment is being caused by Alzheimer’s at all, as there could be many other causes, or it could even be part of the natural process of getting older.
But eventually, Alzheimer’s does enough damage to the brain that the person develops dementia. The most common way that Alzheimer’s disease affects people is an impairment of memory, but there are other less typical ways that the condition can affect people. For example, the damage can be concentrated in the back of the brain and can lead to problems with vision.
Over time, there are a wider number of symptoms that progressively become more severe, such as losing the ability to swallow, the ability to speak, and the ability to move around as easily.
Are there any treatments for Alzheimer’s?
Like other forms of dementia, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. There are, however, different treatments to try. While they won’t stop it or reduce the symptoms, they could potentially slow down or even mitigate the condition over the long term.
Some studies have shown that taking part in activities that are designed to give the brain a workout, as well as remaining active and social into older age, can work to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's’ and could potentially mitigate or help manage the symptoms after diagnosis.