There are a lot of similarities between these two dementia types.
It may surprise you that dementia isn’t one disease—but instead a category of several types of diseases. Doctors categorize these types based on the different changes in the brain that occur. It’s possible to have more than one kind of dementia.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia refers to the loss of cognitive function, which is more than just memory. Cognitive function includes thinking, judgment, memory, language skills, problem solving, ability to focus, ability to manage oneself, and more.
Many people believe that dementia is a normal part of aging, but this isn’t true. Everyone loses some cognitive function as they get older, but not enough to cause dementia. About half of people above age 85 have some variation of dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). That’s a lot—but it also means half of them do not have dementia.
Dementia can happen for different reasons (more on this later), but it comes down to losing connections between neurons in the brain. Neurons are nerve cells. They transmit impulses from one neuron to another, or to muscle or gland cells. When neurons work correctly, they help you with sensing, movement, digestion, learning, and remembering. If these neurons stop working, your brain loses the connections, and the neurons may die.
The Two Most Common Dementia Types
The two most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, as well as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the NIA. There are two key brain changes in people with Alzheimer’s:
- Amyloid plaques, which appear as abnormal clumps in the brain
- Neurofibrillary tangles, which are like tangled fibers in the brain
It’s a progressive brain disease that worsens memory and thinking skills. As it progresses, brain tissue shrinks and symptoms worsen. In later stages of Alzheimer’s, patients often need help with everyday tasks like getting dressed or making meals. It can also cause major changes in personality or even spouts of anger or violence.
Vascular dementia refers to cognitive loss caused by stroke or brain similar injuries. A stroke is when a blood vessel to the brain is either blocked or ruptured. Like other organs in your body, your brain needs oxygen-rich blood to work correctly. When something stops blood from getting to your brain, the brain cells start to die. (Learn more about what stroke is here.)
Quick treatment for stroke can help save brain cells. Without prompt treatment, there is more likely to be cognitive loss and potentially vascular dementia.
Symptoms of vascular dementia are similar to those for Alzheimer’s disease. Memory loss tends to be worse in Alzheimer’s disease compared to vascular dementia. The latter may be more prone to slower thinking and difficulty with problem solving, organizing, and paying attention.
Although experts still have a lot to learn about what causes dementia, it seems that an overall healthy lifestyle can protect brain health as you age. Find out how heart health may affect brain health, and learn more about healthy habits that protect cognitive health as you age.
- About stroke. Dallas, TX: American Stroke Association. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)
- Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s disease: what is the difference? Chicago, IL: Alzheimer’s Association. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)
- Preventing Alzheimer’s disease: what do we know? Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Aging. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)
- Vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and dementia. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Aging. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)
- Vascular dementia. Chicago, IL: Alzheimer’s Association. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)
- What is Alzheimer’s disease? Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Aging. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)
- What is dementia? Symptoms, types, and diagnosis. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Aging. (Accessed on April 7, 2021)