When a doctor says a person has dementia, what does that mean? What do you do, say and ask?
Watch the Alzheimer’s Association’s Chief Programs Officer talk about it in clear, easy terms.
Imagine receiving a medical diagnosis that you don’t understand – you don’t know what the diagnosis means, or what to do about it. That is the experience of the many Americans who are told by their doctor that they have dementia. But what is dementia? Is it Alzheimer’s disease? Or is it something else?
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The term “dementia” describes a group of symptoms related to cognitive changes – changes in the ability to think and reason. A person with dementia may have trouble carrying out day-to-day tasks like paying bills or cooking, may have trouble remembering new information, may frequently forget appointments or dates or may misplace things frequently and lose the ability to retrace their steps. In a medical setting, the term “dementia” means that a person has a cognitive impairment that is severe enough to interfere with their daily life.
If your doctor says that you or someone you know has dementia, don’t let the conversation stop there. Ask, “What do you think is causing the dementia?” If your doctor isn’t sure, ask about pursuing further testing.
This is important because some conditions that cause dementia are treatable and reversible. People with untreated hypothyroidism may show cognitive changes. Or, a person may be depressed, or may be having a bad reaction to medication. In these cases, treating the underlying medical condition will fix or improve the problem.
Most dementias are due to irreversible causes, but even in this case it’s important to know the cause. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common irreversible cause of dementia but there are many other conditions, such as dementia with Lewy Bodies, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia. Each of these conditions is unique, with its own set of symptoms, treatment, and progression.
Let’s get back to the original question: What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? It may help to think of the term “dementia” as an umbrella term that covers a number of conditions, including Alzheimer’s. If you have Alzheimer’s, you have dementia – but not everyone who has dementia has Alzheimer’s. We need to know exactly what form of dementia we are dealing with so that we can put together the best treatment plan possible.
If you’ve been told you have dementia, be sure to ask your doctor what may be causing it and keep asking until you have the answers you need. And regardless of the answer, know that you can contact the Alzheimer’s Association 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for information and support. We are here to help you, whether the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease or another, related dementia.
It is critical that every patient understands the answer to the question: What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
It is also important to understand that that dementia symptoms are not always indicative of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s symptoms and dementia symptoms are the same, but all dementia is not caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, experiencing memory loss does not necessarily mean that you have Alzheimer’s disease. While there is no single Alzheimer’s test, it is pretty simple and straightforward for a doctor to ascertain that there is dementia, but that is only the first step. The next step is to determine what is the cause of the dementia symptoms. Part of the process will be to determine if the symptoms are caused by Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia. The doctor will also needs to explain the stages of Alzheimer’s or the stages of dementia that is diagnosed.
While part of the diagnostic process may be to take a family history, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, Alzheimer’s is not strictly hereditary. However, having Alzheimer’s in one’s family does mean that there is an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, though this may possibly be due to lifestyle, which can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
If the diagnosis is not dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease, the dementia can be vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy Bodies, Frontal Temporal dementia, or can be caused by as many as 70 different medical issues. While there are numerous causes of dementia that are reversible, over 95 percent of the causes of dementia are not reversible. That would include Alzheimer’s disesase, vascular dementia, and dementia with Lewy Bodies.
It is important that we understand the difference between the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” because, while having Alzheimer’s always means you have dementia, having dementia doesn’t mean you have Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia’s number one cause is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are many other causes of dementia as well.