The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s explained

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s explained

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia. Women account for 64.5 per cent of all dementia-related deaths. There are currently 459,000 Australians living with dementia, and nearly 1.6 million Australians involved in their care. Each day, 250 Australians are diagnosed with a type of dementia. It is one of the most common yet misunderstood illnesses in Australia.

Dementia Action Week takes place from 21–27 September and is promoted by Dementia Australia to help spread awareness, understanding and support for caregivers and individuals living with dementia.

Outside medical fields, people often wrongly use the terms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia interchangeably. Understanding the distinction is important for patients, caregivers and family members alike.

Dementia is a general term used to describe a range of symptoms including memory loss, declining cognitive function and reasoning skills severe enough to interfere with day to day life. It occurs when brain cells are damaged, affecting their ability to communicate with one another and impairing a patient’s behaviour and feelings. There are many different causes of dementia, and many different types, including:

  • frontotemporal dementia
  • Huntington’s disease
  • mixed dementia (when multiple types of dementia occurs simultaneously)
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease
  • vascular dementia
  • Korsakoff syndrome
  • Parkinson’s disease dementia
  • posterior cortical atrophy
  • normal pressure hydrocephalus.

Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a specific type of brain disease. It is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 per cent of dementia cases. Like other forms of dementia, it is caused by cell damage that changes the brain. It is a degenerative brain disease, with symptoms worsening over time. In its early stages, Alzheimer’s affects the part of the brain associated with learning, so struggling to remember new information is one of the most common early symptoms. Other early symptoms include confusion with time or place, difficulty planning, problem solving, speaking or writing.

Over time, symptoms worsen. People with Alzheimer’s will eventually find it difficult to perform normal tasks like walking, talking and eating.

Who gets dementia?
While dementia risk does increase with age, not all old people develop it, and not all people who do develop it are old. It can affect people from all backgrounds and walks of life.  While most people with dementia are over the age of 65, some people in the 40s and 50s can develop younger onset dementia. Younger onset dementia is any form of dementia experienced by a person below the age of 65 and is largely misunderstood and underdiagnosed. There are approximately 27,800 Australians living with younger onset dementia.

What are the early signs of dementia?
Early signs of dementia may be hard to notice. Common symptoms include:

  • confusion
  • frequent memory loss
  • inability to perform daily tasks
  • withdrawal and apathy
  • changes in personality.

Neither Alzheimer’s nor other types of dementia are a normal part of ageing, though age is one of the greatest known risk factors for both. There is currently no known cure or way to prevent either. There are medications that have been shown to help reduce and manage the symptoms of people with dementia. 

For more information, visit or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

Did you understand the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s? Are you or somebody you know living with either condition? What changes would you like to see to help support the 459,000 Australians living with dementia?

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    Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.


    To make a comment, please register or login
    24th Sep 2020
    That article tells us nothing
    24th Sep 2020
    Thank you very much for this. It explains it beautifully.
    24th Sep 2020
    If, "There is currently no known cure or way to prevent either"...why in hell are people donating and leaving their deceased estates to the Alzheimer Society? ...To pay the Society director's wages, investments, luxury cars? ...Decades of research and no progress...while in the meantime we are building spacecraft, landing on the moon, Mars, detecting microbes in Venus atmosphere, exploring the universe with sophisticated telescopes...but, they can't find cures for diseases...or is it that, they have a agenda not to, because if they did, this would stop their source of income.
    24th Sep 2020
    I totally agree with you Arvo. I have been saying this for years.
    24th Sep 2020
    I totally agree with you Arvo. I have been saying this for years.
    24th Sep 2020
    It's not just Alzheimer Society, there are the likes of Diabetes Australia. For example how is Diabetes Australia helping out people who succumb to impaired vision, blindness or neuropathy because of progressive Diabetes ! & 2 ?
    Millions upon millions of dollars are donated to these cash cow industries over decades and decades for research (supposedly) and no tangible cure results.
    What do they give back to the affected people from the donations they receive? Do they pay for affected people's medications? Do they pay for the retinopathy specialist eye doctor high fees ? Do they pay for eye laser surgery?...Do they contribute to Medicare out of the donations they receive to lower the cost of all medical claims ? ....Zilch...on all counts. One wonders if there should be a Royal Commission targeting these cash cow industries to ascertain what they have and what they do with the donations they receive and why are they holding back on producing cures.
    25th Sep 2020
    Arvo, by gee, how I agree with you 100%
    When I see such money wasted on such as you have said it makes me angry -- at the amount of waste and lies we are told by those that care nothing about out planet NOW and the people on it --
    25th Sep 2020
    Arvo, by gee how I agree with you 100%
    When I see such money wasted on such as you have said it makes me angry -- at the amount of waste and lies we are told by those that care nothing about out planet NOW and the people on it --

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