June 2, 2017

Is It Dementia or Alzheimer’s? An Inside Look at the Similarities and Differences

While often used interchangeably, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same. Dementia is a syndrome and a broad term for a group of symptoms that don’t have a definitive diagnosis. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common among many different types of dementia.

Distinguishing between different types of dementia can be difficult and is not always straightforward, explained Brian Averell, DO, a physician with Mission Neurology. “Subjective complaints of memory problems, difficulty with visuospatial skills and with executive function and changes in behavior can, at times, be seen in all types of dementia.”

When it comes to identifying Alzheimer’s, one clue to look for is memory-related. “Perhaps the most recognizable feature of Alzheimer’s-type dementia is difficulty with the formation of new memories, manifesting as repetitive questioning or repetitive storytelling on the part of the patient,” said Dr. Averell.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Symptoms at a Glance

Both Conditions:

  • a decline in the ability to think
  • memory impairment
  • communication impairment


  • difficulty remembering recent events or conversations
  • apathy
  • depression
  • impaired judgment
  • disorientation
  • confusion
  • behavioral changes
  • difficulty speaking, swallowing or walking (in late stages)

The Importance of Early Recognition

Not only is early recognition important in that it helps patients and their families plan for the future, it can also help slow the progression of the disease when patients adopt healthier dietary and lifestyle choices, said Dr. Averell. “Neuroradiology at Mission is doing some exciting work with volumetric MRI that is bringing some clarity to the diagnostic picture and will potentially lead to greater confidence in establishing earlier diagnoses. A great deal of research is ongoing globally, and the hope is it will lead to meaningful therapies in the coming years, particularly in the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

Prevention Tips

While there is no known prevention for dementia, managing diet and lifestyle are important. Dr. Averell suggests avoiding foods high in simple sugars or carbohydrates, particularly for people with prediabetes or diabetes. He also advises avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol, particularly over prolonged periods of time. “A lifestyle that includes regular and moderately vigorous exercise has been shown to be of benefit in patients with early cognitive changes and so this is also part of a strategy to mitigate risk of cognitive disease over the long term,” said Dr. Averell.

Brian Averell, DO, is a physician with Mission Neurology.

Learn more about maintaining a healthy brain at mission-health.org/neurology.