Q&A: What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Recently, I was out at Dronning Anne Marie Centret (a care home in Copenhagen) to do some training on the Music and Memory program we are initiating here in Denmark. The dementia coordinator at the nursing home said she had just seen the documentary Alive Inside last week at a special showing held by the Alzheimer’s Association here in Copenhagen (Alzheimerforeningen).

You can read my review of Alive Inside here.

She said there was a Q&A session after the film, and I asked what was discussed and what kinds of questions were asked. She said the first question was on what is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s. I was kind of surprised to hear that this was the main discussion after the film, thinking it would be about music. But, I guess that the Alzheimer’s Association is the right people to ask this question to, and I hope that the audience got satisfying answers.

After studying and working with dementia for the past 12+ years, it has become such a big part of my life that I forget that there are still a lot of people who are just learning about what dementia is now. When I get asked the question, I guess I figured it was because I am mostly meeting people in their 20s or 30s, and mostly when I am meeting new people in social situations who don’t know me or what I do. When I tell them that I work with technologies in dementia care, I am met with some blank stares. So, I follow-up with saying, “like Alzheimer’s disease,” and that usually gives more meaning, but there are many who only know the word Alzheimer’s and don’t understand what it is.

So, getting back to some of the main issues around changing people’s perceptions of dementia, I thought it would be a good idea to address the question here as well.

What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

Dementia is a syndrome, this means that it is a cluster of symptoms that occur together. This means that dementia is a collection of symptoms, typically including progressive memory loss, loss of executive functioning, and other cognitive abilities.

Alzheimer’s is a disease, this means that it is a disorder with an underlying cause. It also produces dementia symptoms. Alzheimer’s is considered a disease because it has a distinct pathology – the plaques and tangles that form in the brain are the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and we know that it starts in the lateral entorhinal cortex and spreads functionally outward. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know what causes the plaques and tangles to form or why some people who have them show the symptoms of Alzheimer’s while others who have them don’t have symptoms. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common diagnosed type of dementia – it is only one of over 100 of types (or causes) of dementia.

If we think of dementia (the group of symptoms) as ice cream, Alzheimer’s is one flavor. Other flavors include Lewy Body Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia, Vascular Dementia, etc. Each have their own symptoms, depending upon which part of the brain is affected.

A variety of tests are used to rule out other causes for the dementia symptoms (stroke, traumatic brain injury, Lyme disease, vitamin D deficiency, etc.), as many different conditions can cause the symptoms and sometimes the symptoms are reversible. Only when no other cause can be found for the symptoms, a diagnosis of dementia or probable dementia is given. If other causes can be found, doctors should give dementia as a secondary diagnosis. Sometimes MRI or PET scans show damage to the brain, other times not. Sometimes comprehensive neuropsychological testing can help to differentiate the type of dementia. Technically, an autopsy is the surest way to confirm the type of dementia, and often there is mixed dementia – a term that means there is more than one variety of dementia occurring in the brain.

So, to summarize:

Dementia is a group of cognitive symptoms. Alzheimer’s is one type of dementia.

Alzheimer’s is the most diagnosed form of dementia, and there are over 100 different types of dementia. 

For more information on Alzheimer’s disease, including a great video that explains what happens in the brain with the disease, check out my post – Spread the Facts on Alzheimer’s Disease.

Still have questions? Feel free to contact me privately, or ask your question in the comment section, below.

This YouTube video is also a great explanation of the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, with more examples and details on the differences. The visual quality of the video is poor, so don’t worry, it’s not your eyes 😉 And it’s still a really informative video.

Much of the research on dementias has been on Alzheimer’s disease, the most commonly diagnosed form of dementia. Because of this, we have a better understanding of what happens in the brain with this type of dementia than most others. If you want to know more about how Alzheimer’s disease changes the brain, this tour from the Alzheimer’s Association gives a great, interactive description:

Inside the Brain: An Interactive Tour


Culture change: Using imagination in dementia care

Forget About Memory, Focus on Imagination!

Dementia films and documentaries

If you’re like me, you like watching films about dementia 🙂

Here’s a list of films about dementia for your viewing pleasure. Most are in English, but I hope to keep growing the list!

You can also look under Reviews on my blog to read about films I have seen.

If you watch one of these or have others to add to the list, I would love to get your opinion in the comments below!

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My BRAIN is alive . . . with the Sound of Music

Film review! “Alive Inside”

Let me start by saying, if you haven’t seen Alive Inside, please do. I saw it first a few months ago and have been watching it again as part of the training for a music activity program I am working on with Copenhagen Living Lab.

This film touches on many of the things that I love about working with people with dementia and their families. You provide the highest quality care by knowing the person and learning to listen to them guide you towards what they need. I felt my own heart in this film. I laughed, I cried, I was inspired. It’s an excellent documentary and definitely recommended!

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