Dementia is not a single disease. It’s a non-specific syndrome that affects cognitive areas of the brain that control memory, language, attention and problem solving. To be considered dementia, the problems must be severe enough to affect daily living. Because Alzheimer’s is responsible for 50 to 60 percent of dementia cases, it’s the most broadly recognized form. However, there are up to 50 different known versions of dementia.
Dementia symptoms can include changes in personality, mood and behavior. While some cases, such as dementia caused by medications, infections, hormone imbalances, vitamin deficiencies and alcohol and drug abuse can be cured, most cases cannot.
Below are a few of the most common types of dementia:
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions when the connections between brain cells and within the brain cells themselves degenerate and die. Gradually, the person affected by Alzheimer’s disease declines in memory and mental function to the point where, in late stage Alzheimer’s, most people don’t recognize their own family members and can make little sense out of everyday surroundings. There are medications available that help some people stave off the worst of the symptoms, but the drugs don’t work for everyone.
Vascular dementia is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain. Although it can be caused by strokes, not all strokes cause vascular dementia. Whether or not dementia is developed depends on the location in your brain where the stroke occurs as well as the severity of the stroke. Vascular dementia also can result from other conditions that damage blood vessels and deprive the brain of oxygen and nutrients. Problems with short-term memory, wandering or getting lost in familiar surroundings and laughing or crying at inappropriate times are a few symptoms of vascular dementia. Many symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease but treatment may vary, so it’s important that a doctor diagnose the correct disease.
Lewy body dementia (LBD)
Lewy body dementia causes a progressive decline in mental abilities. In LBD, protein deposits, called Lewy bodies, develop in nerve cells located in regions of the brain that are involved in thinking, memory and movement. LBD may also cause visual hallucinations, which take the form of objects, people or animals that aren’t there, including deceased loved ones. People with LDB may have significant fluctuations in alertness and attention which can include daytime sleepiness and/or periods of staring into space. LBD is frequently associated with Parkinson’s disease, though not everyone with Parkinson’s develops dementia.
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
Frontotemporal dementia develops when the frontotemporal lobe of the brain degenerates. FTD is actually an umbrella term used for a diverse group of disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. These lobes are generally associated with personality, behavior and language. Some people who develop frontotemporal dementia undergo changes in their personality - often dramatic - and can become socially inappropriate, impulsive or emotionally unavailable. Others lose the ability to use and understand language. Symptoms of the disease vary depending on the part of the brain affected.
Frontotemporal dementia has a history of being misdiagnosed as a psychiatric problem and is often confused with Alzheimer’s disease, as well. FTD most often occurs at a younger age than typical Alzheimer’s disease. Symptoms most commonly develop between the ages of 40 and 70.
To make an accurate diagnosis even more difficult, there are many cases where people have more than one type of dementia. This is usually called mixed dementia. A neurologist or other dementia specialist is generally the best choice for a diagnosis, since a doctor who does not specialize in dementia may have a harder time differentiating between the many types of dementia that can occur.
If you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease by a doctor who is not a specialist in brain issues, a second opinion from a neurologist is a smart move. Valuable time can be lost if a wrong diagnosis is made.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.