Difference Between Alzheimer's and Dementia: March 21, 2012

Hank Graefen’s mother-in-law suffered from dementia. When he and his wife became caretakers in her final years, they studied up on the condition.

“The more you can learn the better you’re going to be and you better understand the disease.”

Often used interchangeably, both dementia and Alzheimer’s are forms of mental degradation. In many ways they seem the same but are actually two different medical terms.

“I tell people that it’s sort of like dementia is the team and Alzheimer’s is one of the players,” says Dr. Michael Raab, a geriatrician with Memory Care at Lee Memorial Health System.

Dementia covers a number of disorders; Alzheimer’s is most common.

“Depending on who you believe, between 60% and 80% are caused by Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Raab.

Alzheimer’s has physical characteristics in the brain, which most other forms of dementia don’t have.

“When you look at the brain, there are tangles and plaques. The Lewy Body dementias, the vascular dementias, the front dementias, none of them really have any plaques or tangles,” says Dr. Raab.

What’s more, Alzheimer’s involves a gradual progression that can begin in middle age. General dementia is usually found in advanced years, Hank’s mother-in-law was in her 90s.

“She didn’t have a bad word to say about anybody, she’s the sweetest person you’ll ever want to meet.”

Finally, various conditions can affect different parts of the brain. Only a specialist can give you proper diagnosis.

“It takes very sophisticated testing which is what we do with our neuropsychologists, to try and differentiate the areas of thinking that have been lost,” says Dr. Raab.