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Alzheimer’s and the other types of dementia

People often think dementia and Alzheimer’s are the same thing, but there’s a subtle difference. Alzheimer’s isn’t the only type of dementia. Here, we explore the different forms.
4 min read
In this article
What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia? Alzheimer’s disease Vascular dementia Dementia with Lewy bodies Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
Early-onset dementia Mixed dementia Other types of dementia  Diagnosing dementia

What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

People often use the words Alzheimer’s and dementia interchangeably, but they’re not quite the same thing. 

Dementia describes a group of symptoms that include problems with memory, thinking and problem solving. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. But there are other types, such as vascular dementia and Lewy body dementia, too. 

Alzheimer’s disease

Most people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. A build up of abnormal proteins in the brain which form ‘plaques’ or ‘tangles’ is seen in people with Alzheimer’s. These proteins interfere with healthy brain cells and stop them communicating properly with each other. Over time, Alzheimer’s can cause loss of brain tissue.

Symptoms include memory loss, poor spatial perception and language problems, which get worse over time.

Scientists don’t yet know the exact cause of the disease, but increasing age and family history are thought to increase your risk of the condition. However, most cases (99%) of Alzheimer’s are not inherited.

Vascular dementia

Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, where the exact cause is unknown, we do know what causes vascular dementia, which is the second most common form of dementia. It can happen when blood flow to the brain is reduced – this damages the cells there.

It can develop as a result of a blockage in the small blood vessels inside the brain. A single stroke, or a series of mini strokes can also cause vascular dementia.

Vascular dementia can lead to slowness of thought, concentration problems, personality changes and memory problems. The symptoms can be similar to Alzheimer’s disease. It also generally gets worse over time, but some medications can slow down the condition’s progression

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Dementia with Lewy bodies

Dementia with Lewy bodies (or Lewy body dementia) affects around 100,000 people in the UK. Again, the symptoms of this disease are very similar to Alzheimer’s, but it can also cause others such as hallucinations, slow movements and tremors (like those you might expect with Parkinson’s disease).

This form of dementia gets its name from Lewy bodies, which is a build up of a type of protein in the brain that’s also found in people with Parkinson’s. This can disrupt various normal functions in the brain. We don’t yet understand why Lewy bodies can also cause dementia.

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is quite a rare form of dementia. It’s sometimes referred to as Pick’s disease or frontal lobe dementia.

FTD affects the lobes at the front of the brain (the parts responsible for behaviour, problem-solving and emotions). It also affects the lobes on the sides of the brain which control language, and recognising faces and familiar objects.

FTD is less likely to affect the memory than Alzheimer’s disease, but can cause changes in personality, as well as behavioural and language problems.

Most forms of dementia tend to affect those over 65, but FTD is also seen in younger people. It’s one of the most common causes of early-onset dementia (see below). Most people with FTD are diagnosed when they are between 45 and 65.

Early-onset dementia

Alzheimer’s mostly affects older people, but around 5% with the disease are under 65. Scientists don’t understand why most cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s or other forms of ‘young dementia’ happen at a young age, but for a small proportion of early sufferers, there may be a genetic cause. In these rare cases, it's called ‘familial Alzheimer's disease’ and multiple family members are usually affected. People who inherit these uncommon genes tend to show symptoms in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

For more information about early-onset dementia, and to find support, visit Young Dementia UK.

Mixed dementia

To make matters even more confusing, you can have more than one form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia is the most common mix, but other combinations are also possible.

Other types of dementia 

Even rarer types include Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, HIV-related cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s disease dementia.  

Diagnosing dementia

There’s no single test for any type of dementia. But if you’re concerned you might have symptoms, your first port of call should be your GP. They will first need to rule out other conditions that could be causing the symptoms. 

You may be referred to a specialist who will conduct further memory tests and explore your symptoms in detail. If any type of dementia is suspected, a brain scan will usually take place which will give the doctor an idea of what type of dementia could be causing the symptoms.

Take a look at our Diagnosing dementia page for more details. 

Further reading

What is dementia?

We explain how to spot the signs of dementia and the difference between this condition and mild cognitive impairment.

Memory aids

Memory gadgets can help people with dementia, Alzheimer’s or memory loss to stay safer and more independent at home.

Living well with dementia

Dementia is life changing, but it shouldn’t stop you from living an independent life for as long as possible.

Last updated: 03 Mar 2020