For decades, seniors and their loved ones have sometimes been confused by the terms, “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease.” Some people use the terms interchangeably, as if they were one and the same thing, but they are not.

“Dementia” is a broad term that means a decline in mental function, including impaired thinking and memory. Although it is often associated with aging, dementia can occur in younger people and it may be caused by several different issues. Chronic alcoholism or drug abuse and Parkinson’s disease are sometimes the origin of a broad set of symptoms that doctors call “dementia.”

Vascular dementia, caused by conditions that block or reduce blood flow to the brain, is the second most common cause of dementia in older people. Often, people don’t suspect vascular dementia when forgetfulness becomes difficult. Whatever the cause, when these symptoms become severe enough to interfere with daily living, a physician may make the diagnosis of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is a specific medical condition that causes a progressive decline in memory and thinking ability. Its exact cause is not known, but Alzheimer’s patients all have certain changes in the brain involving an accumulation of plaques between nerve cells. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia. Because it is such a common cause of dementia symptoms, some people think that “Alzheimer’s” and “dementia” are synonyms, but they are not.

This is important because determining the cause of dementia symptoms is essential to getting proper treatment. Conditions like vascular dementia and Parkinsonism are treated much differently than Alzheimer’s disease, so it is vital to get the right diagnosis. A layperson, a spouse or family member is not able to distinguish between Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, but you can play a key role in getting to the medical professional who can. If you have any doubt, do not put this off.

The Alzheimer’s Association might be a good place to start. This organization provides a directory of local resources in communities across the United States. The government’s Department of Health & Human Services maintains a website devoted to disseminating information about the symptoms, diagnosis and stages of Alzheimer’s and resources available for dealing with it. Quality websites like WebMD and its ‘Alzheimer’s Disease Health Center’ can also be a great source of information.

Caring for a loved one with dementia poses challenges for families and caregivers. People with dementia have a progressive disorder that makes it more and more difficult to remember things, think clearly, communicate with others, or take care of themselves. Whatever the cause, dementia can cause mood swings and even change a person’s personality and behavior. In many cases, the primary care of loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia will fall to a family member.