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Understanding Alzheimer’s vs Dementia

June 2, 2021

MASSENA, NY – While the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia are commonly used, there may be some confusion as to what they actually mean.

As we focus on Alzheimer’s Disease and Brain Awareness Month throughout June, Massena Hospital Neurologist Kejian Tang, MD, explained dementia is not a single disease. Dementia is an overall term, such as heart disease, that covers a broad range of specific medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.

“Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language disturbance, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life and independent function,” Dr. Tang said. “Dementia may also affect behavior, feelings, and relationships.

“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases.  Other types of dementia are vascular dementia from stroke (5-10%), Lewy body dementia (5-10%), and frontotemporal dementia (5-10%). Patients with Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, and alcoholism may also have dementia,” he added.

As we age, mild memory loss is considered perfectly normal. So if you forget where you put your car keys, there’s no reason to panic. Early signs of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgment and executive functions
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood and personality

If you or a loved one is exhibiting symptoms, a visit to their primary care provider or a neurologist is recommended. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is essentially made based on clinical symptoms and signs.

“Physicians may use medical history, mental status tests, physical, and neurological examinations for clinical judgment,” Dr. Tang said. “An MRI of the brain may show some changes, such as atrophy, in certain parts of the brain, but an MRI cannot make a definitive diagnosis of the disease. 

“While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, or a way to stop or slow its progression, there are drug and non-drug options that may help treat symptoms such as memory loss and confusion. A new drug for the treatment of cognitive and functional decline in patients with early Alzheimer's disease is under review by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA),” he continued. “While low saturated fats or foods high in vitamin E might be helpful, there is no convincing diet that can slow the disease process.”

If you have family members with Alzheimer’s, that does not mean you are predisposed to the disease.

“Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease do not run in families,” Dr. Tang said. “Only rare instances of Alzheimer’s are inherited, or familial, accounting for less than 5% of all cases.  Therefore, for most cases it will not automatically affect the next generation, and genetic testing is not recommended.”

Don’t put the care of your brain on hold, learn more information about St. Lawrence Health’s Neurological team.