Most people tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as one in the same. It is true they are connected, yet they are very different. The one thing they both have in common, however, is that they are not a natural part of the aging process.
The primary difference between Alzheimer’s vs. dementia is that dementia is a symptom related to diseases such as Alzheimer’s which is linked to specific pathologies. Those pathologies, which I will discuss later, are the leading cause of dementia.1 Another common trait both have is that unlike our bodies that deteriorate as we get older, our minds do not have to if we take care of them.
Knowing the differences, the signs, and how to be proactive and take back your health can help you fight off these scary conditions and even reverse the symptoms.
Let’s take a look at the differences between Alzheimer’s symptoms and dementia symptoms, how Alzheimer’s testing and dementia testing works, and how you can prevent or halt Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder. It typically affects people over the age of 60, however it’s important to know that it is not a normal part of the aging process! The first warning sign of Alzheimer’s is memory problems, which is one of the key symptoms of dementia and where some of the confusion comes in.2
Currently, Alzheimer’s disease can only be diagnosed by looking at the brain. There are two disease characteristics: beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.3 The tangles are found in other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease,4 but the plaques seem to be more characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
Genetics do play a role in your likeliness of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Luckily, there’s a lot of evidence that it can be prevented.5 I will talk about that later. Let’s look at how Alzheimer’s disease develops.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
Most doctors simplify Alzheimer’s disease’s progression into three main stages — preclinical, mild-cognitive impairment, and dementia.6 Here’s a breakdown of the three stages.
Stage 1: Preclinical
Those around you will also not be able to notice anything “wrong”. It can last for years, possibly even decades before anyone notices Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Stage 2: Mild Cognitive Impairment
You and your family members may begin to notice changes in your memory and thinking ability. About 15% to 20% of people 65 years old and older have mild cognitive impairment (MCI).7 Not everyone with MCI has Alzheimer’s disease, however, it is one of the key signs doctor’s use when identifying Alzheimer’s disease.
Stage 3: Dementia
This stage has three parts: mild dementia, moderate dementia, and severe dementia. Alzheimer’s is often diagnosed in the mild stage when it becomes clear you are unable to function and you’re struggling with memory.
The progression through the three stages of Alzheimer’s disease varies from person to person and can happen within 3 years or over 20 years or more.
What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
Right now, there is no known single cause for developing Alzheimer’s.8 There are, however, a variety of risk factors that may contribute to its development.
While Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of the aging process, your age does contribute to your risk of developing it. After the age of 65, the chance of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years.9 The risk increases to 1-in-3 after the age of 85.
If you have a parent or sibling that has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, your risk increases. The more family members that have had it, the higher the risk. When diseases run in families, either genetics, environmental factors, or both, influences the level of your risk.10
There are two types of genes that influence your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The first type are called deterministic genes, meaning they directly play a role in developing the disease. The good news is, these types of genes cause less than 1% of Alzheimer’s cases. The second type of genes are related to increasing risk, however, they don’t actually cause the disease. 11
There is a link between head injury and risk of dementia. It’s important to protect your head by wearing a seat belt when driving, wearing a helmet if you ride a bike or scooter, and fall-proofing your home as much as possible.
Heart health also can play a role in increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. There is strong evidence that ties damage to the heart from heart disease and an increased risk of developing Alzheimers.
There isn’t a single test that can be done to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, you could see a number of specialists before a doctor can determine whether or not you have Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why it’s usually not until you have reached the later dementia stage before it is diagnosed.12
Genetics testing can help determine whether or not you have the Alzheimer’s gene. Other tools that can be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease include: reviewing medical history, physical exam, neurological exam, cognitive and memory tests, and brain imaging such as a cat scan or MRI.
In addition to the rest of your body, your heart also supplies blood to the brain. It makes sense that Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia — thinking problems caused by inadequate blood flow to your brain — would be connected. Conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol also contribute to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease so it’s important to take care of your whole body health.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a broad term, yet has a simple meaning: a decline in mental function. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, there does not need to be amyloid plaques or neurofibrillary tangles present in the brain to have dementia. Not all people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease, yet everyone with Alzheimer’s will eventually experience dementia.
Common Signs of Dementia
Dementia is a symptom of several conditions such as brain fog, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. However, there are signs specific to dementia.13 They include:
- Difficulty remembering recent events or conversations
- Apathy or not caring
- Impaired judgment
- Behavioral changes
- Difficulty speaking, swallowing, or walking in advanced stages of dementia.
Stages of Dementia
Out of the various diseases that have dementia as one of their characteristics, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.14 The progression of dementia in Alzheimer’s disease has been divided into seven stages as per the Global Deterioration Scale (GDS) of primary degenerative dementia.
Stage 1: No Cognitive Decline
Everything appears normal at this stage. You show no recognizable signs to yourself and others.
Stage 2: Very Mild Cognitive Decline
This can be very similar to age-related memory loss that many people over the age of 65 face, such as forgetting specific dates or recalling a name of someone. Forgetting everyday phrases or names or forgetting the location of objects like car keys or your glasses are noticeable side effects of this stage.
Stage 3: Mild Cognitive Decline
This is the stage where dementia can become more noticeable to friends and family. This stage will not have a major impact on your daily live, however the signs you reached this stage include:
- Trouble solving problems
- Memory loss
- Asking the same question repeatedly
- Diminished work performance
- Inability to concentrate
- Getting lost in stores, not knowing where you are
Stage 4: Moderate Cognitive Decline
Once you have reached this stage, cognitive decline is apparent. This is the stage that is defined as early dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Signs you have entered this stage include:
- Social withdrawal
- Non-responsive when someone is talking to you
- Trouble with routine tasks
Stage 5: Moderately Severe Cognitive Decline
In this stage, you will become less independent and be unable to perform everyday tasks without assistance, such as dressing or taking a bath. Confusion and inability to remember personal details such as birthdays or anniversaries are common in this stage.
Stage 6: Severe Cognitive Decline
At this stage, you are unable to live on your own. You may have trouble sleeping, be repetitive or paranoid, suffer from anxiety, or difficulty recognizing loved ones.
Stage 7: Very Severe Cognitive Decline
At this stage, you are completely dependent on others for basic needs, including drinking, eating, walking, or going to the bathroom. You may lose control of your bladder and bowels and lose the ability to speak.
Types of Dementia
There are many types of dementia, each with different causes. I have already discussed Alzheimer’s disease, so let’s take a glance at other types of dementia.15
- Vascular dementia: This is the second most common type of dementia. This comes as a result of a blockage in blood vessels that are supplying blood to the brain. Because the brain is receiving inadequate oxygen and nutrients, it doesn’t function normally. Vascular dementia can also be the result of a stroke.
- Lewy body dementia: This accounts for 5% to 10% of all dementia cases.16 This is the third most common type of dementia. Alpha-synuclein protein is the chief component of a cellular structure called Lewy bodies, which are present in this type of dementia.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: This is a type of prion disease, which is a special type of protein. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease happens when the protein begins folding into a three-dimensional shape. The dementia caused by this disease usually worsens at a very fast rate.17
- Down’s syndrome: This is a condition where a person is born with an extra 21 chromosome. If you have Down’s syndrome, you have a greater risk of developing a type of dementia that’s very similar to Alzheimer’s disease as you age.
- Huntington’s disease: This is a progressive disease that is caused by a defective gene. Symptoms begin between ages 30 and 50. As the disease progresses, dementia gets worse.
Causes of Dementia
The root cause of dementia is tied to damage to brain cells. However, there are several conditions that can cause dementia. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
Other causes include infections, heart disease,18 or blocked blood vessels. When blood flow is blocked or constricted in any part of your body, it can cause a loss of nutrition and oxygen to the brain, resulting in cognitive decline.
While it is unclear if depression causes dementia, there is indication the two are connected. A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who became depressed late in life had a 70% increased risk of developing dementia.19
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: What’s the difference?
As I said in the beginning, the difference between Alzheimer’s vs. dementia is that Alzheimer’s is a disease, while dementia is a symptom of multiple diseases.20
Much like a headache is a symptom of several conditions, so is dementia. However, about 50 to 70% of cases of dementia are associated with Alzheimer’s.
For Alzheimer’s disease to be definitively diagnosed, an autopsy of the brain needs to be done to see the hallmark beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.21 As I stated before, there is not a single test that can be done to diagnose Alzheimer’s or dementia.
While Alzheimer’s and dementia are scary, they can be prevented and reversed. Let’s talk about what you can do to prevent or halt the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
How to Prevent or Halt Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease can be a scary topic. Yet, here’s a truth you may not know: Unlike the rest of our bodies, our brains do not have to deteriorate as we age if we take care of them. This is the empowering part: You can take back control of your health and prevent and reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Even if you or a loved one do start to have symptoms, a change in habits can help slow the progression of this disease.
Whether or not you are worried about preventing or halting Alzheimer’s disease, a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is a good idea. Along with exercise, mental activities, meditation, and good sleep, you can change the trajectory of your brain health now and later in life.
Let’s take a closer look at how you can implement brain-boosting habits.
- Optimize your diet: Eliminate inflammatory and toxic foods such as gluten, grains, dairy, nightshades, eggs, alcohol, GMOs, refined sugar, and processed foods. Eat a diet rich in berries, coconut oil, curcumin, garlic, green tea, protein, healthy fats, and leafy-green vegetables.
- Exercise your mind: To support your brain healthy, give it a workout. Learn a new language, study a new subject, do puzzles and memory games, memorize song lyrics, or meditate. I recommend the app HeartMath for meditation.
- Get enough sleep: While you sleep your brain flushes out toxins such as beta-amyloid which contributes to Alzheimer’s disease. As you age, you spend less time in the deep stages of sleep where fact-based memories as well as emotional and procedural memories are made. Getting enough sleep is essential for optimal brain function.
- Eliminate toxins: The best thing you can do to lighten your toxic burden is to prevent the toxins from getting into your system in the first place. You may not have control over everything, yet you do have control over your own home. I focus my efforts on keeping my own home environment as clean as possible: I eat only organic food, filter my air and water, and use chemical-free products on my body and to clean my home.
- Move your body: The science is irrefutable that exercise quite literally changes your genes. Exercise activates the brain’s growth hormone, BDNF, reverses memory decline in the elderly, and increases cell formation in the brain’s memory center. You can walk, jog, do some light cardio at home, or yoga. I’ve been doing yoga on my new Yogi Bare mat.
We tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease as a condition that afflicts the elderly suddenly. That is simply not true. Alzheimer’s and dementia progress slowly over time, so the good news is you can reverse it and even prevent it.
- What is Alzheimer's Disease. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Alzheimer's Disease. CDC. 2021.
- Inside the Brain: A tour of how the mind works. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Tau Pathology in Parkinson's Disease. Xue Zhang, Fei Gao, Dongdong Wang, Chao Li, Yi Fu, Wei He, and Jianmin Zhang. US National Library of Medicine. 2018.
- Alzheimer's prevention: Does it exist?. Jonathan Graff-Radford, M.D.. Mayo Clinic. 2021.
- Stages of Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Spotting the signs of mild cognitive impairment. Kristen Weir. American Psychological Association. 2019.
- Causes and Risk Factors for Alzheimer's Disease. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Alzheimer's Disease. CDC. 2021.
- Is Alzheimer's Genetic?. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Brain Health. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Medical Tests. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Dementia. Mayo Clinic Staff. Mayo Clinic. 2020.
- What Are the Seven Stages of Dementia?. Dr. Jasmine Shaikh, MD. MEdicine Net. 2020.
- Types of Dementia. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Lewy Body Dementia. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Vascular Dementia. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- Depression: Early warning of dementia?. Harvard Medical School. 2012.
- Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease: What is the Difference?. Alzheimer's Association. 2021.
- How Is Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosed?. National Institute on Aging. 2017.