Dementia is a loss of cognitive function and behavioral abilities. These changes interfere with a person’s daily interactions and activities, leaving them unable to think, reason and perform tasks as they formerly did. Dementia can affect memory, language skills, visual perception, problem solving, concentration, and more. People with dementia may not be able to control their emotions, may experience uncharacteristic depression or anxiety, and their personalities may change.
People often use the terms “Alzheimer’s” and “dementia” interchangeably. Because “Alzheimer’s” is a more familiar term than other types of dementia, people often believe they are one and the same. While Alzheimer’s is the most common type, there are many different forms of dementia. They include:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Vascular dementia
- Lewy body dementia
- Parkinson’s dementia
- Mixed dementia
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)
- Huntington's disease
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus
- Posterior cortical atrophy
- Korsakoff syndrome
If your senior loved one is exhibiting behaviors or dementia symptoms that have led their physician to suggest they might have a memory condition, it may help you to learn more about the different types of dementia and the symptoms associated with each.
Different Types of Dementia & Alzheimer's DiseaseDementia is the umbrella term used to describe a variety of neurodegenerative disorders. The most common types of dementia include:
Alzheimer’s DiseaseIt probably won’t surprise you to learn that Alzheimer’s is the leading form of dementia. Between 60 to 80 percent of all dementia diagnoses are for Alzheimer’s. Common symptoms include memory loss, anger or agitation, difficulty with verbal communication, vision problems and more. As the disease progresses, a person with Alzheimer's disease will develop severe memory impairment and lose the ability to carry out everyday tasks.
In people age 65 and older, Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. While the exact cause is still unknown, plaques and tangles of protein are often found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. Researchers believe that it is likely caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time. Less than 1 percent of the time, Alzheimer's is caused by specific genetic changes, and these rare occurrences usually result in disease onset in middle age.
Some medications may temporarily improve symptoms or slow cognitive decline. These treatments can sometimes help those affected maintain some degree of independence.
Those affected by Down syndrome have a greatly increased risk of developing a type of dementia that's either the same as or very similar to Alzheimer's disease.
Vascular DementiaIn vascular dementia, brain damage is caused by reduced or blocked blood flow to a person’s brain. Cognitive changes may occur suddenly following strokes that block major brain blood vessels or gradually, as a result of multiple minor strokes or other conditions that affect smaller blood vessels. Strokes; narrowed or chronically damaged blood vessels from conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes; smoking; obesity and atrial fibrillation are all potential risk factors.
Vascular dementia is considered the second-most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer's disease, accounting for about five to 10 percent of cases. Symptoms can vary widely, depending on the severity of blood vessel damage and the part of the brain affected. Memory loss may or may not be a significant symptom. Other symptoms may include confusion; trouble concentrating; and problems analyzing, planning and communicating.
Treatment often focuses on managing health conditions and risk factors that contribute to vascular dementia, which may slow the disease’s progression.
Lewy Body DementiaClassified by abnormal clumps of protein in the brain, Lewy body dementia is one of the more common types of progressive dementia. It can occur with or without Parkinson’s disease.
Dementia with Lewy bodies affects 1.4 million people in this country. It occurs when protein deposits build up on nerve cells in the brain stem leading to memory loss, tremors, muscle rigidity and behavioral issues. In some instances, treatment options may help slow the progression of the disease. Experts estimate that Lewy body dementia is the third most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia, accounting for between five and 10 percent of cases.
Lewy bodies are found in other forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease dementia. Many people with Lewy body dementia experience movement problems, such as hunched posture, muscle rigidity, a shuffling walk and trouble initiating movements. Researchers have not identified specific causes of Lewy body dementia. Medications may help reduce cognitive symptoms and sleep difficulties, but there are no current treatments that can stop or slow brain cell damage.
Parkinson’s DementiaOver the last 30 years, the number of cases of Parkinson’s disease has climbed significantly. It has actually doubled in older men! As the disease progresses, people often develop Parkinson’s dementia, a condition that causes memory loss and loss of judgment.
Brain changes linked to Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia are abnormal microscopic deposits of alpha-synuclein, a protein normally found throughout the brain. These are called Lewy bodies, and are the same as those found in Lewy body dementia. Evidence suggests that Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia may be linked to the same underlying abnormalities in the brain’s processing of alpha-synuclein.
Parkinson’s disease affects nearly 2 percent of people over age 65. Recent studies estimate that 50 to 80 percent of those with the disease may experience dementia. Common dementia symptoms include problems with memory, concentration and judgment; trouble interpreting visual information; hallucinations; delusions; muffled speech; irritability and anxiety; and sleep disturbances. Both Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia damage and destroy brain cells, and the speed of progression varies from person to person.
Medications may help reduce cognitive changes, but drugs typically prescribed for Parkinson’s disease movement symptoms may worsen dementia-related symptoms.
Mixed DementiaIn the most common form of mixed dementia, abnormal protein deposits associated with Alzheimer's disease occur with blood vessel problems linked to vascular dementia. Alzheimer’s deposits can also coexist with Lewy bodies.
Symptoms may vary, depending on types of brain changes and brain regions affected. Most people with mixed dementia are only diagnosed with a single type of dementia during their lives, with signs of multiple types discovered after death. No drugs are specifically approved to treat mixed dementia, but many people are prescribed those used to treat Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Researchers believe controlling risk factors for heart and blood vessel diseases may help protect the brain from vascular changes which can make symptoms worse in mixed dementia.
Frontotemporal DementiaThis group of diseases is characterized by the breakdown of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. It may affect younger people than the other types. It was formerly called Pick’s disease. The primary symptom of this type of dementia is a loss of inhibition.
Behavior variant frontotemporal dementia is characterized by significant changes in personality and behavior that often occur in people in their 50s and 60s but can develop much earlier or later. In behavior variant frontotemporal dementia, nerve cell loss occurs in areas that control conduct, judgment, empathy and foresight.
Primary progressive aphasia is the second major form of frontotemporal degeneration. It affects language skills, like speaking, writing and comprehension. It normally appears in midlife, before age 65, but can occur later.
Both types are far less common than Alzheimer’s disease in those over 65. However, in the 45 to 65 age range, they are nearly as common as younger-onset Alzheimer’s. Frontotemporal dementia is inherited in about a third of all cases. There are no specific treatments, but there are medications that can reduce agitation, irritability and depression.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD)This the most common human form of a group of rare, fatal brain disorders known as prion diseases. Misfolded prion proteins destroy brain cells, and CJD dementia typically gets worse unusually fast. It is rare, affecting about one in a million people annually worldwide.
Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease develops spontaneously and accounts for 85 percent of cases. It typically appears between ages 60 and 65. Familial Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is caused by changes in the chromosome 20 gene coding the biological blueprint for prion protein. It is inherited, accounts for about 10 to 15 percent of cases, and appears at a younger age than sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, sometimes as early as age 20 to 40. Acquired Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease results from exposure to an external source of abnormal prion protein – like from instruments used in neurosurgery, growth hormone from human sources or some transplanted human tissues or from consumption of meat or other products from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease.
Symptoms can vary widely, but include depression, agitation, confusion, disorientation, memory problems, judgment difficulties and movement symptoms – all of which can rapidly progress. An estimated 90 percent of those diagnosed with CJD die within one year, and medications can only ease some of the condition’s symptoms.
Huntington’s DiseaseThis progressive brain disorder is caused by a defective gene on chromosome 4. This defect is dominant, meaning anyone who inherits it from a parent will eventually develop the disease. Symptoms of Huntington's disease usually develop between ages 30 and 50, but they can appear much earlier or later in life. Dementia symptoms are accompanied by or follow uncontrolled movement of the arms, legs, head, face and upper body.
Huntington's disease causes a decline in memory, concentration, judgment and the ability to plan and organize, as well as alterations in mood, especially depression, anxiety, and uncharacteristic anger or irritability.
Treatments focus on managing symptoms, like involuntary movements, irritability and obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Normal Pressure HydrocephalusThis is one of the few causes of dementia that can be controlled or reversed with treatment. It is a brain disorder in which excess cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain’s ventricles, but CSF pressure as measured during a spinal tap is often normal. It most cases, the cause of fluid buildup is unknown, but it can occur with a tumor, head injury or hemorrhage. It is sometimes accompanied by difficulty walking or loss of bladder control, and it is often misdiagnosed as another type of dementia.
Physicians may use a high-volume spinal tap to identify if someone might benefit from surgical insertion of a shunt. In this procedure, doctors remove a large amount of spinal fluid and observe the person, looking for improvements in walking or thinking and reasoning.
Posterior Cortical AtrophyThis is a gradual and progressive degeneration of the outer layer of the brain in the back of the head. It is still unknown whether this is a unique disease or a possible variant of Alzheimer’s disease. It tends to occur in slightly younger people, aged 50 to 65. Some studies have found that about 5 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have posterior cortical atrophy.
The most common symptoms include slowly progressing difficulties with visual tasks like reading, judging distances, and distinguishing between moving objects and stationary objects; disorientation; and difficulty maneuvering, identifying and using common tools. There are no specific treatments, though some drugs used to temporarily alleviate brain dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease may be helpful.
Korsakoff SyndromeThis chronic memory disorder is caused by severe deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B-1). It is most commonly associated with alcohol misuse, but certain other conditions can cause the syndrome. It is often preceded by an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, an acute, life-threatening brain reaction to severe lack of thiamine, often accompanied by confusion, staggering and stumbling, lack of coordination and abnormal involuntary eye movements. The condition is sometimes treatable with thiamine administration and alcohol avoidance.
Dementia Care at Elmcroft Senior LivingIf your spouse or senior loved one has been diagnosed with some form of dementia, help is only a phone call away. Elmcroft Senior Living is a leading provider of memory care across the country. Call the community nearest you to learn more!