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‘Alzheimer’s’ and ‘dementia’ are not interchangeable words

Columnist Carol Bradley Bursack explains the differences between Alzheimer's, dementia and other common forms of dementia.

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Dear Carol: Are the words Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeable? I don’t think they are, but I can’t explain the difference to my mom. Dad’s 87 and still has a decent memory, but he makes poor decisions and worse, he sometimes hallucinates. The doctor says that these symptoms without memory loss are more typical of Lewy body than Alzheimer’s but considering his age, there could be a mixture of causes including Alzheimer’s and/or vascular dementia. Can you clarify this for us non-scientists? Thank you! – KJ

Dear KJ: Dementia is hard on the whole family, so looking for support early is a good idea.

Since Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia symptoms, people often use the words interchangeably. Here’s a brief explainer that might help clarify the terms.

Dementia is the word used to describe decreased cognitive functioning. Symptoms can include memory loss, language difficulties, confusion and decreased problem-solving skills that are severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily life.

There are many causes for dementia with Alzheimer’s being the most common, which is why people often confuse the words. However, Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that causes dementia symptoms.


Alzheimer’s: Scientists are still trying to define the cause of Alzheimer’s, but characteristic plaques and tangles are evident in autopsied brains. Younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease (YOAD) is often more aggressive and can even occur as early as one’s 40s, though more commonly in the 50s and 60s. However, late-onset Alzheimer’s is quite common, with age being a major risk factor. Memory loss that exceeds that of normal aging is usually, though not always, the first noticeable symptom.

Other types of dementia

Dementia with Lewy bodies (LBD): Lewy body dementia may be the second most common type of progressive dementia. Protein deposits called Lewy bodies develop in nerve cells in the brain regions involved in thinking, memory and movement (motor control). Hallucinations are not unusual. Lewy body dementia can occur with Parkinson’s disease.

Vascular dementia: Another common type of dementia is vascular dementia which involves the vascular system and blood flow. Symptoms can be similar to Alzheimer’s and it’s not unusual for them to appear simultaneously in older adults.

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD): Frontotemporal dementia refers to a group of disorders caused by progressive nerve cell loss in the brain's frontal lobes. Behavior changes are often the first noticeable symptoms, and it’s typically diagnosed between the ages of 40 and 65.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): Dementia due to TBIs can happen even long after a severe head injury or repeated head injuries.

Alcohol-related dementia is a type of alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD).

Normal–Pressure Hydrocephalus: Dementia from fluid on the brain can sometimes be treated by inserting a shunt to drain the fluid.

Mixed Dementia: It’s very common for older adults to develop more than one type of cognitive disease due to the damage that accumulates through the years.


While this isn’t a complete list, these are the most common. Best wishes, KJ, as your family makes plans for your dad’s care.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver and a nationally-recognized presence in caregiver support. She's the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” a longtime newspaper columnist and host of her blog at mindingoureldersblog.com. Carol's an introverted book nerd, so you won't see her mugging in viral videos, but you can easily reach her using the contact form at mindingourelders.com.
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