When a loved one gets a dementia diagnosis, most assume it’s Alzheimer’s disease. However, many are surprised to learn that Alzheimer’s disease is actually only one type of dementia. There are actually a number of other types of dementia, and learning more about which one your loved one has can not only help you plan for the future but also be the best advocate for their care. Here’s an overview.
Dementia is not a disease in and of itself. It’s an umbrella term that describes symptoms affecting thinking, memory, and behavior. While Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent type and accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases, according to the CDC, there are other types of dementia as well. There are also a range of conditions that can cause symptoms of dementia, such as rare brain disorders, cancer, and even some infections.
What’s more, although many types of dementia are permanent, starting slowly and progressing over time, some can be reversed, such as those caused by thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies, which makes early diagnosis vital.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the most common types of dementia include the following:
Alzheimer’s is a slow and progressive disease that begins with memory loss and subtle behavioral changes. Over time, the disease undermines most areas of brain functioning, including speech and movement. People with Alzheimer’s disease have plaque built up in the brain and damage to nerve cells. Researchers think a combination of genetic and environmental causes plays a role in the disorder.
Vascular dementia occurs when damage to blood vessels impairs blood flow to the brain, and this can cause a form of brain damage and a wide variety of symptoms. Those symptoms are heavily dependent on which region of the brain is affected. A history of heart disease, stroke, or blood clots—as well as a family history of these diseases—increases the risk of vascular dementia.
Lewy body dementia (LBD) causes proteins called alpha-synucleins to accumulate in the brain. Over time, people with LBD develop sleep and mobility issues. They may also have visual hallucinations. Because LBD causes the same brain proteins as Parkinson’s disease, LBD is sometimes confused with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a nervous system disorder that affects movement. As the disease progresses, many sufferers experience changes in mood and thinking.
Frontotemporal dementia affects the brain’s frontotemporal lobe. People with frontotemporal dementia may experience changes in behavior and speech before showing signs of memory loss or thinking difficulties. The symptoms tend to appear earlier than Alzheimer’s, often around age 60.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is caused by a prion, which is similar to a virus. There are two forms: a genetically inherited mutation and the infectious form, called mad cow disease. CJD can occur at any age, causes rapid loss of problem-solving and thinking skills, and is fatal. It’s also extremely rare, occurring in about one in a million people.
Excess fluid on the brain, called hydrocephalus, can interfere with thinking and memory. This form of dementia is usually caused by something else, such as a brain infection or brain injury, and is often reversible.
Huntington’s disease is a rare, progressive genetic disorder that is fatal and is characterized by involuntary movements. Over time, symptoms progress to include mood and behavior changes and difficulties with thinking. It can affect people at any age.
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) is caused by severe thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency. In the industrialized world, nutritional deficits this severe are rare. However, alcohol can impair thiamine metabolism, so most Americans with WKS have a history of alcohol abuse. Thiamine injections often reverse symptoms.
In the early stages of dementia, your loved one can likely remain at home with support from friends and family members and/or an in-home aide(s) who can provide personalized care. However, when dementia progresses to the later stages, specialized care outside the home may become necessary to give your loved one the best quality of life. As such, assisted living and memory care are two types of senior living that can offer support.
To learn more about the stages of dementia, download our Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing the Early Signs of Dementia today!