Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are terms often used to describe particular medical states that affect a person’s mental ability to varying degrees.

Sometimes there is confusion about what they really mean, whether in fact they refer to the same condition and how to know if you or a loved one is affected.


One of the primary differences between the two is that dementia is not an actual disease but rather a term that is used to describe a number of symptoms that are associated with a decline in mental ability.

Generally this decline is severe enough to make it difficult for a person to perform what would be their everyday activities.

Symptoms vary depending on which part of the brain is affected, but the more common symptoms of dementia include:

  • The loss of memory – this is often the first symptom and the most conspicuous.
  • Difficulty remembering events, identifying people and places.
  • Difficulty knowing the right words to express a thought or idea.
  • Problems with planning ahead and executing basic tasks.
  • Confusion when a decision needs to be made such as in an emergency situation.
  • Mood swings can be present with depression, agitation and possibly aggression.
  • Lapses in looking after things like showering and general personal grooming.

Dementia is the result of brain cells being damaged and losing their ability to communicate effectively which is why thinking, behaviour and feelings are affected.

The abilities affected depend on the region of the brain that has sustained damage. According to Headway the regions of the brain and the functions that they control are:

  • Parietal lobe: perception, special awareness, manipulating objects and spelling.
  • Wernicke’s area: understanding language.
  • Broca’s area: expressing language.
  • Frontal lobe: intellectual activities such as planning and organizing, as well as personality and the control of emotions and behaviour.
  • Occipital lobe: vision.
  • Temporal lobe: memory, facial recognition, generating emotions and language.

The different symptoms experienced will point to the distinctive types of dementia such as:

  • Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Vascular dementia.
  • Parkinson’s disease.
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies.
  • Fronto Temporal Lobar Degeneration (FTLD).
  • Huntington’s disease.
  • Alcohol related dementia (Korsakoff’s syndrome).
  • Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia and according to the Australian Fight Dementia campaign it is the most common form of dementia with the statistics showing that Alzheimer’s accounts for between 50 and 70 per cent of diagnosed dementias.

The reasons why people contract Alzheimer’s disease are still being investigated with the exact cause being difficult to pinpoint. New research funding into the causes of Dementia was recently announced in Australia to investigate factors like a lack of vitamin B12 and the presence of proteins in the body as potential causes.

There are two different types of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Sporadic: this usually affects people over the age of 65 who have no family history of Alzheimer’s and is the more common or the two.
  • Familial: is rare but does run in families where Alzheimer’s disease has a 50% chance of developing in a child in their 40’s or 50’s if a parent has a mutated gene.

How Dementia Affects Australians

The Fight Dementia campaign documents how Australians are being affected by dementia and includes a number of statistics to demonstrate how many people in the country are impacted:

  • More than 321,000 people in Australia live with dementia.
  • Every week of the year 1,700 new cases of dementia are diagnosed which equates to one person every six minutes
  • One in every four people have dementia over the age of 85
  • There is no cure for dementia and it is the third highest cause of death in Australia.

For more statistics see their website.

Getting Help

If you feel that someone that is close to you is experiencing difficulty with memory or any of the other symptoms that we have listed it is suggested that they seek medical advice.

Just because a person is having difficulty with their memory doesn’t mean that they are suffering from dementia, they could be affected by any number of factors or conditions and a doctor can help with a considered diagnosis from all the facts.

photo credit: Sailing “Footprints: Real to Reel” (Ronn ashore)

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