Most of us have experienced an occasional lapse in memory at some point in our lives. Forgetting about an appointment or misplacing your eye glasses can be perfectly normal at any age. However, as you get older, you may wonder if your memory lapses are normal age-related forgetfulness or something more serious like Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is a slow, progressive disease caused by brain cell death that impairs memory, cognitive function, and thinking skills and is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. Alzheimer’s disease is ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the fifth leading cause of death among those age 65 and older. Every November, National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month is observed to help raise awareness about this disease. It may be hard to know the difference between age-related changes and the first signs of Alzheimer’s, but learning about the disease and its symptoms may help you or a loved know when to seek help from a medical professional.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia, or in other words, Alzheimer’s disease is what causes dementia as the disease attacks the brain. But dementia itself is not a disease. Dementia is a syndrome, or a set of symptoms that can include memory loss, impaired judgment, and difficulties with language, word-finding, thinking, and problem-solving.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common type of dementia responsible for 60-80% of all dementias. However, other conditions besides Alzheimer’s can also cause dementia, including:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB)
  • Mixed dementia
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s or Another Dementia

  • Repeated memory loss, forgetting recently learned information, and asking for the same information over and over again
  • Taking much longer to do things, difficulty concentrating and solving problems
  • Difficult completing familiar tasks such as following a recipe, driving, or remembering the rules to a game
  • Changes in mood and personality including confusion, suspicion, depression, and anxiety
  • Losing track of dates and times and confusion about location
  • Vision problems and difficulty with reading, judging distant, and determining color contrast
  • Lacking judgment in decisions, such as paying less attention to hygiene and giving away large amounts of money
  • Withdrawal from hobbies and social engagements that were once enjoyed
  • Struggles with vocabulary, finding the right words, and calling things the wrong name
  • Unable to retrace steps when misplacing things, regularly losing things, and sometimes accusing others of stealing

Just because you may have trouble with memory does not mean you have Alzheimer’s disease. Diagnosing Alzheimer’s requires careful medical evaluation by your primary care doctor, a neurologist, and sometimes a neuropsychologist. There is not one test that can determine if a person has the disease. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may be exhibiting symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s, talk to your doctor about your concerns and learn if there are perhaps other health issues causing complications with memory.