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Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: What’s the Difference?

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are two related and commonly co-current conditions involving loss of cognitive function in old age, and are thus often used interchangeably and incorrectly.  We recently had Barbara Wolf PhD, from the McLaren Hospital in Flint visit the BMC and explain the differences and nuances between the two conditions, and we wrote this article to highlight her points for our patients.


Dementia is a general term for medical conditions that include memory impairment and at least one other cognitive domain, typically marked by:

  • Aphasia – problems understanding and  expressing oneself
  • Apraxia – inability  to perform tasks or movement when asked
  • Agnosia  –  failure to recognize people or objects
  • Executive  Function – there is often a severe  decline in organizational skills, enough to interfere with daily functioning and independence

Many diseases are commonly co-current with Dementia, and are highlighted here:

  • 60-80% have Alzheimer’s (AD)
  • 10-20% have vascular dementia
  • 5% have dementia associated with PO
  • 15-20% have Lewy Body dementia (LBD)


Alzheimer’s is a more specific medical condition that explains a type of dementia, and is marked by personality changes, including anxiety and dysregulation,  that may precede cognitive changes.  Some specific characteristics of Alzheimer’s include:

  • Aging; Almost half of people greater than the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s Disease.
  • Typically there is a sibling or parent with Alzheimer’s Disease – Genetics MAY be a factor, but is not definitive yet.
  • Past head trauma- there may be a strong link between serious head injury and future risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

Here are some signs of early onset of Alzheimer’s:

  • Long term memory intact
  • Short term memories effected
  • Might forget conversations
  • Repeating questions
  • Poor coordination, memory loss and confusion
  • Word finding difficulty
  • Confusion, getting lost
  • Mood swings, poor judgment
  • Inability to balance one’s checkbook

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, patients often understand what is happening, but may be ashamed and anxious about it.  In the more advanced stage, patients may become paranoid or violent and turn on family members.  These are some of the distinguishing features of Alzheimer’s versus Dementia.  Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s can only be confirmed upon autopsy.

In summary, Dementia is an “umbrella” term and Alzheimer’s is one specific form of dementia.

Depression can cause symptoms that mimic dementia, so thorough medical and neuro-psychological evaluations are needed to differentially diagnose the patient’s condition.  Metro Detroit area residents may contact the Birmingham Maple Clinic for referrals for evaluation.