As we get older we often become more forgetful. We find it more difficult to remember certain words, for example. This applies to some extent to almost all elderly people, but there is, of course, a substantial difference between ‘becoming a bit forgetful’ and being diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s and dementia come into the equation if a person is becoming more and more forgetful.
These two terms are often used interchangeably. So what exactly is the difference between them? In this blog post we look at Alzheimer’s and dementia in more detail.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe disorders involving visible cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s is a subtype that comes under this umbrella, but there are also other forms of dementia. The organisation Alzheimer Nederland estimates that there are around 270,000 adults in the Netherlands who are suffering from dementia and that this number will increase significantly over the coming decades.
When do we talk of dementia?
We talk of dementia if a person is exhibiting cognitive changes and as a result is functioning at a lower level than before. People with dementia find it harder to perform everyday tasks, such as paying bills and taking medication. We often see impaired function in (some of) the following areas: memory, spatial awareness, judgement, awareness of illness, language, handwriting, performing tasks, senses, behaviour and mood.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for around 70% of dementia cases. In most cases a person with Alzheimer’s disease will have symptoms after the age of 65.
With Alzheimer’s the first problems you see are often linked to memory, language, spatial awareness or the ability to solve problems. Alzheimer’s is characterised by an insidious onset and a gradual progression of impaired function in these areas. Before Alzheimer’s is diagnosed it is first necessary to establish whether another condition (or medication) is responsible for these symptoms.
What causes Alzheimer’s?
What exactly causes Alzheimer’s is not yet known. However, we know of a number of notable biomarkers – biological factors that can provide a measurable indication of a physical state that is typical of the development of Alzheimer’s. One example is the accumulation of the protein amyloid beta to form so-called plaques. These plaques cause inflammatory reactions, resulting in the loss and/or atrophy of neurons.
There can also be changes in the tau protein, a substance that stabilises a complex system for transporting neurotransmitters. These changes result in a shortage of neurotransmitters, which are important for storing new information, amongst other things. Alzheimer’s patients therefore often struggle to retain new information.
If these biomarkers are present, there is a greater risk that the dementia symptoms are actually being caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Other forms of dementia
Besides Alzheimer’s, there are also other forms of dementia. Examples include:
- Frontotemporal dementia (also known as Pick’s disease)
- Vascular dementia
- Dementia with Lewy bodies
- Dementia due to traumatic brain damage
- Dementia due to use of drugs or medication
- Dementia due to an HIV infection
- Dementia due to a prion disease (such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease)
- Dementia due to Parkinson’s disease
- Dementia due to Huntington’s disease
The characteristics of these forms of dementia differ from those of Alzheimer’s. In the case of dementia with Lewy bodies a person’s ability to function fluctuates more and patients sometimes suffer from hallucinations. Often the patient’s condition deteriorates more quickly than it does with Alzheimer’s. In the case of frontotemporal dementia problems with self-control, planning and maintaining an overview play a greater role, for example.
What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
As mentioned above, dementia is an umbrella term used to describe various conditions in which cognitive changes occur. Alzheimer’s is a subtype that falls under this umbrella, as are other cognitive conditions such as frontotemporal and vascular dementia.
Can you be genetically predisposed to dementia?
Research has shown that an increased risk of Alzheimer’s is hereditary. It has been demonstrated that you are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s yourself if you have direct family members who suffer from the disease. In addition, certain genes have been identified that can substantially increase or reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Based on current scientific knowledge, it is not yet possible to prevent Alzheimer’s, although there is evidence that a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk.
Alzheimer’s and the iGene Passport
If you take a DNA test, you will be able to see whether you have an increased or reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s in later life. Do you have an increased risk? If so, iGene will also provide you with personal lifestyle advice to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. iGene does not currently offer information on the risks of developing forms of dementia other than Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer Nederland (2017)
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.
McKhann, G. M., Knopman, D. S., Chertkow, H., Hyman, B. T., Jack Jr, C. R., Kawas, C. H., ... & Mohs, R. C. (2011). The diagnosis of dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease: Recommendations from the National Institute on Aging-Alzheimer’s Association workgroups on diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & dementia, 7(3), 263-269.