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Alzheimer's and Dementia

There is often confusion and misunderstanding with the terms Alzheimer's disease and dementia, but there is a distinct difference. Dementia is a symptom, and Alzheimer's is one cause of the symptom.

Dementia is an umbrella term. It describes the symptoms that occur when the brain is affected by certain diseases or conditions. There are many different types of dementia although some are far more common than others. They are often named according to the condition that has caused the dementia.

Although Alzheimer's disease accounts for about 70 percent of cases of dementia, other disorders include vascular dementia, Parkinson's disease, dementia with Lewy Bodies and Frontotemporal dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities, to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of daily living.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). Plaques and tangles in the brain are two of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. The third is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.