You may have noticed that the terms Alzheimer’s and dementia often are used interchangeably. While the two conditions can be similar, they also encompass important differences.

Experts note that both conditions remain a mystery in many ways, which explains in part why they sometimes are mistaken for each other. While researchers say they need more information to fully understand Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, they have uncovered the basic mechanisms for each disease.

Alzheimer’s Disease: A Common Cause of Dementia

According to the World Health Organization, Alzheimer’s disease may contribute to as many as 70 percent of all dementia diagnoses. Alzheimer’s is, in fact, the most common cause of dementia. Some 5 million Americans have received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the disease ranks in the top six causes of death.

Alzheimer’s impairs the function of the brain, particularly the portions controlling behavior, movement, language, memory, judgment and abstract thought. As the disease gradually harms the brain, the disease progresses and causes worsening symptoms of dementia.

How can you tell if your loved one suffers from Alzheimer’s? The Alzheimer’s Association lists the following symptoms:

  • Trouble remembering names, activities and conversations that occurred recently.
  • Changes in behavior, including depression and apathy.
  • Confusion, disorientation and poor communication abilities.
  • Problems with walking, talking and speaking.

This irreversible disease progresses slowly and typically begins well before the appearance of symptoms. While most cases manifest in seniors, early-onset Alzheimer’s can strike individuals between the ages of 30 and 60.

Dementia: A Blanket Term

Globally, more than 47 million people suffer from dementia, and doctors diagnose nearly 8 million new cases annually. Rather than referring to one specific disease, dementia describes a set of symptoms – such as memory problems – associated with cognitive deterioration.

Alzheimer’s is a common cause of dementia. Others include Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, vitamin deficiencies and drug interactions.

If your loved one is suffering from dementia, you may notice:

  • Loss of memory and language abilities
  • Personality and mood changes
  • Confusion
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Motor function and coordination problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Social withdrawal
  • Agitation and paranoia

In addition to Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia can impact seniors. For example, vascular dementia – also referred to as post-stroke dementia – is not as common as Alzheimer’s. The first symptom typically is not memory loss, but rather an impairment of decision-making, planning or organizational abilities. Brain damage such as blocked blood vessels causes the condition.

For a doctor to diagnose dementia, a patient must demonstrate severe problems with two or more functions of the brain – for instance, language and memory. In diagnosis, medical professionals use a variety of screening tools, including evaluations of mental status, blood tests, brain scans and testing of neuropsychological functioning.

Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, dementia is reversible in some cases, depending on the cause. For example, a medical professional may be able to treat – and even reverse – dementia caused by a medication interaction or a nutrient deficiency.

If your loved one is experiencing memory loss, confusion, diminished motor skills or other symptoms that could indicate dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, see your doctor as soon as possible.