Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s: How Are They Different?

Dementia and Alzheimer’s can affect people similarly, but they are quite different. Learn the differences between these conditions, including their causes, effects and treatments.

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe physical changes in the brain that result in difficulties remembering, controlling emotions, communicating and performing routine activities. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific diagnosable type of dementia.

The primary difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is that dementia is a syndrome – which is best described as a group of symptoms that do not have a specific diagnosis – while Alzheimer’s is a disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for more than half of all cases of dementia.1

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What are the different types of dementia?

There are several types of dementia, including:

  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)
    CJD is a rare and fatal brain disorder known as a prion disease, in which proteins in the brain fold into an abnormal shape. CJD can lead to a rapid decline in mental ability, including a failing memory and diminished physical coordination.

  • Lewy body dementia (LBD)
    If proteins called Lewy bodies build up in your cortex, it can lead to a decline in thinking, reasoning and independent function. LBD is the second-most common type of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.

  • Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
    FTD describes a group of disorders caused by progressive nerve cell loss in the brain. Symptoms such as behavioral changes and difficulties with language typically show up around age 60.

  • Huntington’s disease (HD)
    HD is progressive brain disorder in which a defective gene causes nerve cells in your brain to break down as you get older. This affects movement, mood and thinking skills.

  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)
    People suffering from NPH have difficulty thinking, reasoning, walking and maintaining bladder control. This is caused by a buildup of excess spinal fluid in the brain.

  • Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA)
    PCA is characterized by a gradual and progressive degeneration of the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information, such as reading or judging distance.
  • Parkinson’s disease dementia
    Many people with Parkinson’s disease develop a form of dementia that includes a decline in thinking and reasoning abilities. Like other degenerative brain disorders, the symptoms typically worsen over time.
  • Vascular dementia
    Vascular dementia is caused by blood vessels and tissue in the brain that become damaged, causing a decline in thinking skills.

  • Korsakoff syndrome (KS)
    KS is a severe and chronic memory disorder caused by an acute deficiency of vitamin B-1 (thiamine).

It’s possible to have multiple types of dementia at once, which is a condition known as “mixed dementia.”

The World Health Organization estimates that around 50 million people around the world are living with at least one type of dementia.1

Dementia is more likely to occur in old age, when brain cells naturally deteriorate. Vascular diseases, strokes, depression, chronic drug use and infections such as HIV are also known causes of dementia.

What are the first signs of Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s occurs when protein deposits form tangles and clusters of plaques in the brain, much like a cavity forms on a tooth. The cells affected by these buildups begin to die, and the brain can even begin to shrink as a result.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Trouble remembering recent conversations or events
  • Apathy
  • Depression
  • Impaired judgement
  • Disorientation
  • Confusion
  • Changes in behavior
  • Difficulty speaking, walking and swallowing

Other types of dementia may include some of these same symptoms.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease that causes gradual impairment of memory and overall cognitive function. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, and the exact cause of the disease remains unknown.

Alzheimer’s generally affects people over the age of 60, although younger people can be affected as well. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates nearly 6 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s.2

How is Alzheimer’s disease treated?

Alzheimer’s is most often treated with medications (some of which may be covered by a Medicare Advantage plan that covers prescription drugs).

Alternative remedies such as using coconut oil and fish oil, as well as eating a Mediterranean diet, can also be used to help prevent and slow the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

The lifespan of someone with Alzheimer’s is typically between four and eight years after diagnosis, though some people can live for up to 20 years following diagnosis.

Does Medicare cover dementia or Alzheimer’s?

People with Alzheimer’s can often benefit from a Medicare Special Needs Plan (SNP). A Special Needs Plan is a type of Medicare Advantage plan with a set of benefits that is specifically designed around the needs of a particular condition, such as Alzheimer’s.

Find a Special Needs Medicare Advantage plan that may cover your dementia or Alzheimer's care

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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not healthcare advice. Speak to your doctor or healthcare provider about your specific healthcare needs.

1 World Health Organization. Dementia. (Dec. 12, 2017). Retrieved from

2 Alzheimer’s Association. 2019 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Retrieved from


About the author

Christian Worstell is a senior Medicare and health insurance writer with He is also a licensed health insurance agent. Christian is well-known in the insurance industry for the thousands of educational articles he’s written, helping Americans better understand their health insurance and Medicare coverage.

Christian’s work as a Medicare expert has appeared in several top-tier and trade news outlets including Forbes, MarketWatch, WebMD and Yahoo! Finance.

Christian has written hundreds of articles for that teach Medicare beneficiaries the best practices for navigating Medicare. His articles are read by thousands of older Americans each month. By better understanding their health care coverage, readers may hopefully learn how to limit their out-of-pocket Medicare spending and access quality medical care.

Christian’s passion for his role stems from his desire to make a difference in the senior community. He strongly believes that the more beneficiaries know about their Medicare coverage, the better their overall health and wellness is as a result.

A current resident of Raleigh, Christian is a graduate of Shippensburg University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

If you’re a member of the media looking to connect with Christian, please don’t hesitate to email our public relations team at

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