If you find these terms confusing or think they’re one and the same, you’re not alone. We often use these terms interchangeably, but they actually mean two different things. 

Here’s what you should know.

Dementia is not a disease itself. It refers to a group of brain disorders that cause similar symptoms such as memory loss and difficulties with thinking and reasoning, language, and problem-solving. These changes are severe enough to impair a person’s ability to perform day-to-day activities. Symptoms may also appear as unusual changes in a person’s mood or behaviour.

Many diseases can cause dementia . The most common are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, which is usually brought on by a stroke. Other causes include Lewy Body disease, repetitive trauma and injury to the head, Frontotemporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.

Treatable conditions such as depression and thyroid disease sometimes mimic the signs of dementia.

Dementia can occur in people in their 50s, 40s, or even in their 30s but most often affects people aged 65 and older. Dementia, however, is not a normal part of aging; in fact, it can be present in the brain for up to 25 years before symptoms start to appear.

Dementia is also progressive and affects everyone differently. That means it worsens with time, but the course of progression varies from person to person, lasting between 8 to 10 years or longer.

Dementia is fatal and as of yet has no cure. Early diagnosis is important because it not only rules out other treatable conditions, but also quickens access to support so you can learn to live with the disease and plan for your future.

For early diagnosis to be possible, you must know the warning signs. Many people recognize memory loss as a symptom. But can you name the rest?

  • Memory loss affecting day-to-day abilities: forgetting things regularly, struggling to learn or retain new information.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks: forgetting how to do something you’ve been doing your whole life like balancing a cheque book or getting dressed.
  • Problems with language: forgetting or substituting words that don’t fit the context.
  • Disorientation in time and space: not knowing what day of the week it is or finding your way in a familiar place. 
  • Impaired judgment: not recognizing a medical problem that needs attention or wearing light clothing on a cold day.
  • Problems with abstract thinking: not understanding what numbers mean on a  calculator, for example, or how they’re used.
  • Misplacing things: putting objects in strange places, like an iron in the freezer or wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
  • Changes in mood and behaviour: showing severe mood swings, from being easy-going to quick-tempered.
  • Changes in personality: acting out of behaviour such as feeling paranoid or threatened. 
  • Loss of initiative: withdrawing from friends, family, and favourite activities.

If you, a friend, or family member is noticing one or more of these warning signs, talk to a doctor. Your local Alzheimer Society can also help and provides a wide range of programs and services. For more information, please visit www.alzheimer.ca