DEAR MAYO CLINIC: What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Are they hereditary?
ANSWER: Dementia is a broad term used to describe a group of symptoms that interferes with a person's thinking and the ability to function well in day-to-day activities. Many conditions can result in dementia, but Alzheimer’s disease is, by far, the most common. Because so many factors can lead to dementia, one cannot say that dementia, the syndrome, is hereditary. Rather, subtypes of dementia (for example, Alzheimer’s disease) may have inherited components. A rare form of Alzheimer’s disease is truly inherited, but that accounts for only 1 percent of the total disease. Typical Alzheimer’s disease, however, does have a tendency to run in families, and there are genetic tendencies.
Dementia is defined by its symptoms, with memory loss being one of the most frequent. Just because a person has some memory loss, though, doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has dementia. A diagnosis of dementia typically means a person is having problems with at least two brain functions. That may include, for example, memory loss as well as impaired judgment or problems with language. These may in turn lead to difficulty performing routine tasks, such as paying bills or driving to a familiar location without getting lost.