Are Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia the Same Thing?

ChristodoulouChristopher Christodoulou, PhD
Clinical and Research Neuropsychologist
Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease
PalekarNikhil Palekar, MD
Director, Geriatric Psychiatry
Medical Director, Stony Brook Center
of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia is a term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. It has been called one of the greatest global challenges for health and social care in the 21st century.

What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?
Dr. Palekar:
Dementia itself is not a disease. It’s a symptom of an underlying brain disorder. There are many possible causes of dementia, some of which can be eliminated with proper diagnosis and treatment, particularly if the cause is found promptly. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. It’s an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

What causes Alzheimer’s?
Dr. Palekar:
While we still don’t know how the process begins, it appears that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before problems show up. During this period, while people may be free of symptoms, toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form throughout the brain, causing once-healthy neurons to begin working less efficiently. Over time, these neurons lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the damage spreads to a nearby structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential in forming memories. As more neurons die, affected brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

Is it a natural result of aging?
Dr. Christodoulou:
No. Occasional mild memory loss may be a part of aging, but Alzheimer’s is not. However, the greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older. About five percent of people with the disease have early onset, which often appears in one’s 40s or 50s.

What are the most common signs?
Dr. Christodoulou:
Signs of Alzheimer’s can be more difficult to identify in this time of COVID-19 because the virus has disrupted routine and increased stress, which can cause cognitive problems. However, a common early sign is a loss of memory for new information that begins to disrupt daily life. Others include new problems in speaking and writing, confusion with time or space, or withdrawing from work or social activities.

Is there a cure?
Dr. Palekar:
No, but early detection and treatment can help. Medications may slow the progression of symptoms, providing patients and families with the opportunity to plan for the future. There are also programs that can support caregivers to help reduce their burden and stress.

Any advice on prevention?
Dr. Christodoulou:
COVID-19 has complicated this as well, but perhaps it is a good time to start a healthy habit like walking, an excellent aerobic exercise that may lower Alzheimer’s risk. Exercise classes are also available online, as are educational resources to exercise your mind. Remaining socially active may also help, even if we must maintain physical distance. Other prevention tips include eating a heart healthy diet and reducing high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

What’s the Stony Brook difference?
Dr. Palekar:
The Stony Brook Center of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease is supported by a grant from the NYS Department of Health. It’s one of only 10 such centers in the state and the only one serving Nassau and Suffolk counties. Our clinical specialists offer assessment and diagnostic services that include individualized care plans with treatment recommendations, referrals to services and community resources, outreach to primary care and other healthcare professionals, language assistance, and information about clinical trials at Stony Brook and elsewhere.

To make an appointment, call (631) 954-2323.

Free Cognitive Screening

For ages 55+
Locations in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

Registration/more info: (631) 632-3160