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Some people use the words “Alzheimer’s” and “dementia” interchangeably, but they actually mean different things. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects approximately 5.3 million Americans. Dementia is a group of symptoms that affects cognitive thinking. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. So, in a nutshell, Alzheimer’s is the disease and dementia is the symptom.

Even though Alzheimer’s is responsible for 70 to 80 percent of dementia cases, there are other conditions that can cause dementia, such as Parkinson’s disease or Lewy Body disease. When a person is diagnosed with dementia, doctors try to diagnose the cause of the symptoms. Since it can be hard to pinpoint Alzheimer’s, some patients are diagnosed with “probable Alzheimer’s” based on their symptoms, the course of the symptoms and their tests. These patients will most likely follow the normal progression of Alzheimer’s: mild, moderate and severe stages.

The most common symptoms of dementia include:

  • Memory loss

  • Difficulty communicating

  • Difficulty with complex tasks

  • Difficulty with planning and organizing

  • Difficulty with motor and coordination

  • Personality changes

  • Paranoia

  • Agitation

  • Hallucinations

  • Inappropriate behaviors

  • Inability to reason

  • Problems with disorientation

Alzheimer’s and Dementia are Equally Severe

Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not less severe than Alzheimer’s. Some people believe that a diagnosis of dementia symptoms is better than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. This is not the case. Both have mild and severe stages and interfere with daily living. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent them from occurring. We are learning more about how we can slow the progression of both dementia and Alzheimer’s, but we cannot say that we can prevent this impairment from taking place.

Why the Confusion between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Part of the reason why the two terms get confused is because it is not possible to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease when someone is alive. Instead, the brain tissue is evaluated during the autopsy. So, a person cannot 100 percent accurately be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while they are alive. This means that many patients get the “probable Alzheimer’s” diagnosis, or are simply told that they are showing signs of dementia.