Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia, but there are many types and causes of dementia. People sometimes use the terms interchangeably, but they are not the same.

Dementia describes a set of symptoms that broadly affect a person’s cognitive functioning. Depending on the type and cause, dementia can affect someone’s:

  • memory
  • thinking and focus
  • problem solving abilities
  • language use
  • visual perception

Alzheimer’s disease is a specific type of dementia. It involves progressive damage to brain cells, resulting in a loss of memory and a decline in other aspects of thinking.

This article looks at the types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease more specifically, and the symptoms and treatment options associated with both.

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Dementia describes a collection of symptoms with no specific cause. It can affect a wide range of mental functions. Many different conditions have links with dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for around 70% of cases. However, there are other types and causes, including:

Some factors and conditions can trigger symptoms that resemble those of dementia. These include:

It is possible to have multiple types of dementia. The term for this is mixed dementia.

Learn more about the symptoms of dementia in older adults here.

Causes and risk factors

The cause depends on the type, but the exact causes of many forms of dementia are currently unclear.

Dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, but age is one of the main risk factors. In fact, up to 50% of people aged 85 years and older may have a type of dementia.

Also, in the United States, around 11.3% of people aged over 65 years currently have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. This number rises to 34.6% in those aged 85 years and older. Symptoms tend to worsen with age.

It is possible to develop dementia at a younger age, but the condition is more common among older adults.

Warning signs and symptoms

The symptoms of dementia range in severity, and they also vary depending on the area of the brain that the condition affects. The most common symptoms include:

  • anxiety and distress
  • low mood
  • detachment and disinterest
  • repeating the same questions
  • psychosis
  • sleep disturbances
  • walking around for no apparent reason
  • inappropriate behaviors, such as social and sexual disinhibition

Symptoms can take time to appear, and significant damage may be present before a person visits a doctor. This may make treatment more challenging.

In Alzheimer’s disease, researchers believe that a buildup of unusual proteins forms plaques and tangles in the brain and causes symptoms.

These proteins surround brain cells and can affect their ability to communicate. This eventually causes damage to the cells until they can no longer function.

Some scientists have found that these buildups occur in specific areas of the brain, including the hippocampus. This region plays a crucial role in long-term memory recall.

Warning signs and symptoms

Alzheimer’s disease involves specific symptoms because of the areas of the brain it affects. Early signs and symptoms include difficulty remembering things and confusion.

In time, a person may also experience:

  • disorientation
  • mood and behavioral changes
  • confusion about times, places, and events
  • unfounded suspicions about people around them
  • difficulty using and understanding words
  • physical problems, such as difficulty swallowing and walking

There is currently no cure for dementia, and current treatments cannot reverse the damage. However, if symptoms arise due to vitamin deficiencies or drug use, there may be options to prevent the condition from progressing.

Other treatment options depending on the type of dementia.

Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, for example, aim to relieve symptoms and could involve:

  • taking medications
  • ensuring personal comfort and safety
  • having exposure to sunlight and getting regular exercise, which can help with sleep
  • undergoing cognitive training or cognitive rehabilitation therapy to help develop habits that help manage daily life

Some drugs aim to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, while others help manage related issues, such as sleep problems, anxiety, or other symptoms. The person and their caregiver will need to work with a doctor to find suitable treatments at each stage.

Lifestyle strategies, such as getting regular exercise and eating a varied diet, contribute to overall health and may help prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

Does Medicare cover dementia care? Find out here.

The outlook for people with dementia depends on the cause. A 2015 study concluded that, overall, the chance of dying with dementia is higher than the chance of dying with cardiovascular disease.

For Alzheimer’s disease, a person who receives a diagnosis at the age of 65 years will live, on average, another 4–8 years. However, some people live up to 20 years after symptoms first appear.

Many types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are progressive conditions that worsen over time. However, the rates of progression vary widely.

There is currently no cure, but treatment may help manage the symptoms.

Dementia is a condition that affects a person’s ability to think. Specifically, it can impact their memory, reasoning, mood, and other features. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, but there are several other types and causes.

Treatment will depend on the cause, but it may involve medications and certain lifestyle strategies.

Caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease can be challenging. Get some tips on caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease here.