Dementia vs. Alzheimer's: What's the Difference

June 19, 2024

Memory lapses are an annoyance as we age, but not always cause for concern. By the time most people enter their 50s and 60s, they aren’t surprised when they lose their car keys or forget someone’s name.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's Disease

However, memory lapses can be a sign of something more serious, such as dementia. Dementia is a general term for a range of symptoms affecting the brain. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects more than 6 million people in the U.S.

adult son talking to senior dad on couch

If you are concerned about a loved one’s memory and wonder if they may have Alzheimer’s disease, read on. We’ll help you recognize the early signs and know when it’s time to seek medical help.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain condition that affects a person’s ability to think, remember and reason. Scientists are still working to understand changes in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s disease. According to the National Institute on Aging, these changes may begin 10 years or more before symptoms appear.

Changes associated with Alzheimer’s include toxic buildups of proteins that form plaques and tangles in the brain. The damage typically starts in parts of the brain that help create memories. In advanced Alzheimer’s, brain damage is widespread.

Genetic factors and lifestyle can affect a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Risk factors include:

  • Age – most people with dementia are 65 and older
  • Family history – people with a parent or sibling who has dementia are at higher risk
  • Heart health – researchers believe there is a strong connection between heart and brain health
  • Heredity – genetic changes cause a small percentage of Alzheimer’s cases
  • Previous head injury

Healthy habits can reduce your risk of getting dementia. These include eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and keeping your mind sharp.

Memory Loss and Alzheimer’s Disease

It isn’t always easy to tell when a person has Alzheimer’s disease, especially early on. Knowing what to look for can help.

Memory loss is the key symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. In the early stages, people with Alzheimer’s tend to forget information they recently learned, such as the name of a new acquaintance. They also may forget appointments, events or conversations they just had. The person may be aware of their memory lapses and function well in their daily life. But as the disease progresses, their symptoms take a greater toll.

Additional Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

As the disease progresses, people with Alzheimer’s may experience issues affecting other areas of brain function. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, these include difficulty with the following:

  • Planning and problem-solving: Following a recipe or paying bills like they used to.
  • Doing familiar tasks: Grocery shopping, laundry, feeding pets, eating meals, etc.
  • Understanding concepts of time and place: Remembering where they are or what season it is.
  • Understanding visual images and spatial relationships: Vision changes that affect their ability to read, judge distances, or tell colors apart.
  • Holding a conversation: Struggling to find the right words or following what others are saying.
  • Staying organized: Keeping track of things and retracing their steps.
  • Judgment and decision-making: Using poor judgment when dealing with money or relationships.
  • Caring for home and personal hygiene: Caring for their home and personal cleanliness.
  • Maintaining social and work relationships: Communication problems may cause people to withdraw from social interactions.
  • Managing emotions: Mood and personality changes may cause people to overreact to situations and become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or irritable. A break in their routine can be challenging for people with Alzheimer’s, causing the person to become upset.

What To Do if You Are Concerned About a Loved One’s Symptoms


If you or someone you care about is experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s, it’s essential to seek an evaluation.

Talk to Friends and Family

Talking to someone you trust about your concerns is a good first step. Find out if friends and family members have noticed the same changes you do. If so, it may be time to talk to the person about what you see. If you aren’t comfortable doing it, perhaps someone else in your circle is. A one-on-one conversation with a trusted family member or friend is probably best.

Caring friends and family members can make all the difference for people struggling with memory, thinking and behavior. The first conversation may not be successful, but don’t give up. Keep looking for opportunities to connect and provide support.

The Alzheimer’s Association provides 10 tips to help guide this conversation, for example:

  • Find a time and location that will put the person at ease.
  • Ask questions first, such as “How have you been feeling lately? You don’t seem like yourself,” or “I noticed when you (specific example) and it worried me. Has anything else like that happened?
  • Offer encouragement and reassurance. If the person is willing to see a doctor about their symptoms, offer to go with them.

When It’s Time To Seek Medical Help

When memory loss and other symptoms of dementia affect a person’s daily life, it’s time for a medical evaluation. A neurologist who specializes in treating dementia can provide a thorough assessment that may include the following:

  • A physical and neurological exam
  • Reviewing the person’s medical history
  • Lab work
  • Brain imaging

Just because a person has dementia doesn’t mean they have Alzheimer’s disease. They may have a treatable underlying condition. In some situations, treatment can reverse or stop symptoms.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The good news is that some Alzheimer’s disease medication and non-drug treatments can help manage symptoms and slow the disease’s progression.

Concerned About Memory Loss? Our Team of Neurologists Can Help

Do you have concerns or questions about memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease? Schedule an evaluation with our neurologists by calling 954-265-9500.