Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease


Article by 

Maree McCabe

Maree McCabe, AM CEO of Dementia Australia, Explains

Many people have heard of dementia but might not understand what it is or what the difference is between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Dementia is a progressive, fatal disease of the brain. It is an umbrella term to describe a large group of illnesses that cause a progressive decline in a person’s day-to-day functioning. It is a broad term used to describe a loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills, and physical functioning. There are many different types of dementia – in fact, there are more than 100 different types – with the most common form being Alzheimer’s disease. Other forms include vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy Bodies.

How many people does it affect?

In 2021, there are an estimated half a million Australians living with dementia and an estimated 1.6 million people involved in their care. Without a medical breakthrough, the number of people living with dementia is expected to increase to more than one million by 2058.

Because the diseases that cause dementia develop gradually, the early signs may be very subtle and not immediately obvious. Early symptoms also depend on the type of dementia. These can vary a great deal from person to person.

senior with memory loss a symptom of dementia

What are the signs?

Common early symptoms include:

  • Memory problems, particularly remembering recent events
  • Increasing confusion
  • Reduced concentration
  • Personality or behaviour changes
  • Apathy and withdrawal or depression
  • Loss of ability to do everyday tasks

Sometimes people fail to recognise that these symptoms indicate that something is wrong. They may mistakenly assume that such behaviour is a normal part of ageing. Alternatively, symptoms may develop so gradually they go unnoticed for a long time. Sometimes people may be reluctant to act, even when they know that something is wrong. For the person experiencing the symptoms, the very nature of these changes within the brain may mean that the person is unable to recognise that there are changes.

Remember that many conditions have symptoms similar to dementia. Do not assume that someone has dementia just because some of the above symptoms are present. Strokes, depression, alcoholism, infections, hormone disorders, nutritional deficiencies, and brain tumours can all cause dementia-like symptoms. Many of these conditions can be treated.

How can it be treated?

The best place to start is with the person’s doctor. After considering the symptoms and ordering screening tests, the doctor may offer a preliminary diagnosis. They will also, ideally, refer the person to a medical specialist. This could be one of many, including a neurologist, geriatrician, or psychiatrist.

Some people may be resistant to the idea of visiting a doctor. Sometimes people do not realise that there is anything wrong with them. This is because the brain physically changes. The changes that occur with dementia interfere with the ability to recognise or appreciate the changes occurring.

Others, who do have insight into their condition, may be afraid of having their fears confirmed. One of the best ways to overcome this problem is to find another reason to visit the doctor. Perhaps suggest a blood pressure check or a review of a long-term condition or medication. Another way is to suggest that it is time for both of you to have a physical check-up. A calm attitude at this time can help overcome the person’s worries and fears.

caring for elderly with dementia

What else can you do?

If the person still does not visit the doctor, other options include:

If you feel your doctor is not taking your concerns seriously, consider seeking a second opinion.

Each year for Dementia Action Week, we work with the community to raise awareness about dementia and our services. This year it will take place on 20-26 September with the theme, A Little Support Makes a Big Difference.

During the week, we will be providing simple and practical tips to help people who are supporting a person living with dementia.

Many Australians will start experiencing the impact of dementia amongst their own family and friends in the coming years. If we are to prepare for this increase, it is vital we clear up some of the prevailing misconceptions about dementia. A little support really does make a big difference for people living with dementia and their family carers.

Make sure to keep an eye on our website and social media accounts during the week. At Dementia Australia, we offer carer support services, including counselling, client and family education programs, carer support groups and group social support. Our National Dementia Helpline is open Monday to Friday from 8 am to 8 pm. Visit for Help Sheets, education programs and more.

Maree McCabe AM, CEO of Dementia Australia

I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary work carers do, especially those who look after people living with dementia. Please get in touch if you need information or support.

A recognised leader, Maree brings extensive experience and expertise to the health, mental health and aged care sectors.

Her career accomplishments include leading the former federation of Alzheimer’s Australia to unify and become Dementia Australia. Maree’s vision led to the development of internationally recognised, cutting-edge dementia education tools using computer games, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and innovative apps.

Maree is a member of the Commonwealth Health and Aged Care Sector Committees, Sector Boards and a member of the Alzheimer’s Disease International Asia Pacific Regional Committee and the Chair of the Nominations Committee. On 14 June 2021, Maree was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for significant service to people living with Alzheimer’s and Dementia and to the Aged Care sector and included in the COVID-19 Honour Roll for contribution in support of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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