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The Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s: Video Q&A With Teepa Snow

Merritt Whitley
By Merritt WhitleySeptember 12, 2020

“What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?”

This is one of the most common questions national dementia educator Teepa Snow receives. In this “Ask the Dementia Expert” episode, she discusses how the the two relate and clarifies these common and often-confused terms. Read highlights below or watch the full video.

Defining dementia: What are the four characteristics?

Teepa Snow: Dementia is a great big umbrella term. It’s a collection of conditions with four characteristics:

  1. It involves brain failure.  Dementia occurs when parts of a person’s brain begins to die.
  2. It’s chronic. Dementia is ultimately something that cannot be fixed, healed, or reversed.
  3. It’s progressive. Once dementia starts, it cascades. Dementia can move throughout the brain slowly, quickly, rapidly, or incrementally.
  4. It’s terminal. All types of dementia kill you — if nothing else kills you first — but with dementia a person’s brain kills them by failing over time.

Alzheimer’s disease: It’s a specific form of dementia

We now know there are over 120 forms, causes, and types of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a particular type that fits under the umbrella of dementia with two key characteristics:

  1. Beta-amyloid plaque formation. When people develop Alzheimer’s, this protein clips or disconnects in a place it shouldn’t, becomes sticky, and forms plaques.
  2. Tau protein. Inside brain cells are structured parts called tau proteins. When they start breaking apart, it causes proteins to collapse on one another and causes neurofibrillary tangles.

When doctors see beta-amyloid plaque formation combined with tau in people’s brains after they’ve died, they can tell they’ve had Alzheimer’s.

What are the early or common signs of dementia?

Alzheimer’s makes up about 50-60% of all dementia cases, but under the umbrella, there are different kinds of dementia that can affect older and younger people. The bad news is people can also have more than one kind of dementia.

In all types of dementia, typically one of the areas of the brain that’s affected early on is the hippocampal area, which is found in the temporal lobe and plays a major role in learning and memory.

Dementia can affect your memory, wayfinding, and:

  • Time awareness or passage. Forgetting where you are in your life.
  • Moving from place to place. Getting lost in an environment or task.
  • Difficulty learning. Simply struggling to learn new things.

These are some of the hallmarks of the beginning signs, but it ultimately depends on the kind of dementia you have. 

Merritt Whitley
Merritt Whitley
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