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.

Written by Liv Gardiner

Writer and editor with interests in travel, lifestyle, health, wellbeing, astrology and the enivornment.

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