Alzheimer’s disease is always dementia, but dementia is not always Alzheimer’s disease

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If that’s confusing, you’re not alone. Most people do not realize that there’s anything wrong with the sentence, “Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

I can’t tell you how often I’ve met people who introduce their dementia care community as, “Welcome to our Alttttheimer’s and dementia unit!”

There are 3 things wrong with this sentence: 

  1. It’s not a unit, it’s a community where people live.
  2. Alzheimer is a German last name, it’s not ALTheimer.
  3. “Alzheimer disease and dementia” is a sentence that doesn’t completely make sense.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms of cognitive loss. These symptoms are caused by many different diseases. 

What does that mean? I like to explain it this way: if you go to the doctor, and the doctor says that you have cancer, you would probably ask, “What type of cancer is it?” You wouldn’t leave the doctor without finding out this information. We want to treat dementia the same way: we want to find out what cause or form of dementia a loved one has!

Alzheimer disease (I’ve recently started dropping the ‘s in my writing, because the disease is not Dr. Alzheimer’s disease) is just one cause of dementia. It’s the most common one, but it’s still just one form of dementia. 

Some experts will say that there are over 100 forms of dementia. I like to say “over 70,” just so I know I’m definitely going to be right!

You probably wouldn’t say, “Cancer and skin cancer,” because that sounds silly. This is really why we don’t want to say, “Alzheimer and dementia.” While a person can, and often does, have more than one cause of dementia at a time, this sentence makes it sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

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Rachael Wonderlin has a Master’s in Gerontology and is the author of two published books with Johns Hopkins University Press. She owns Dementia By Day, a dementia care consulting company.

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