The World Health Association estimates 55 million people have dementia. As the proportion of older adults increases in nearly every country, this number is expected to rise to 78 million in 2030 and 139 million in 2050. While many seem to have this disease, it is not a normal part of aging. It is the decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia is not a single disease but a general term — like heart disease — that covers a wide range of specific medical conditions.
Signs of dementia can vary greatly, including problems with short-term memory, keeping track of a purse or wallet, paying bills, planning and preparing meals, remembering appointments, or traveling out of the neighborhood. The disease can also affect behavior, feelings, and relationships.
While Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, there are many kinds of the disease. Learning more about the differences between them is essential and can empower individuals living with dementia, their families, and their caregivers with the necessary knowledge to thrive. We have composed a quick review of the different types of dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-80 percent of dementia cases. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over several years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. As Alzheimer’s advances through the brain, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood, and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time, and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends, and professional caregivers; more severe memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare and aggressive type of dementia, occurring in about one million people annually worldwide. Through a process scientists don’t yet understand, the prion protein found throughout the body begins folding into an abnormal three-dimensional shape. This triggers the prion protein in the brain to fold into the same irregular shape destroying brain cells. Resulting damage leads to a rapid decline in thinking and reasoning and involuntary muscle movements, confusion, difficulty walking, and mood changes.
Lewy Body Dementia
Most experts estimate that LBD is the third most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, accounting for five to ten percent of cases. It is a type of progressive dementia that leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning, and independent function from abnormal microscopic deposits that damage brain cells over time. Lewy bodies are also found in other brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease Dementia. Many people with Parkinson’s eventually develop problems with thinking and reasoning, and many people with Lewy Body Dementia experience symptoms, such as hunched posture, rigid muscles, a shuffling walk, and trouble initiating movement. This overlap in symptoms and other evidence suggests that Lewy Body Dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Parkinson’s Disease Dementia may be linked to the same underlying abnormalities in how the brain processes the main protein linked to the disease, alpha-synuclein.
FTD or frontotemporal degenerations refers to a group of disorders caused by progressive nerve cell loss in the brain’s frontal lobes or its temporal lobes. The nerve cell damage in these brain regions leads to deterioration in behavior, personality, and difficulty producing or comprehending language. Once named “Pick’s disease,” FTD is inherited in about one-third of all cases. Genetic counseling and testing are available in individuals with family histories of the disease.
HD is a progressive brain disorder with hallmark symptoms of uncontrolled movement of the arms, legs, head, face, and upper body. Huntington’s disease also causes a decline in thinking and reasoning skills, including memory, concentration, judgment, and ability to plan and organize. It leads to alterations in mood, especially depression, anxiety, uncharacteristic anger, and irritability. Another common symptom is obsessive-compulsive behavior, leading a person to repeat the same question or activity repeatedly.
In the most common form of mixed dementia, the abnormal protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s disease coexist with blood vessel problems linked to Vascular Dementia. Alzheimer’s brain changes also often coexist with Lewy bodies. In some cases, a person may have brain changes related to all three conditions — Alzheimer’s disease, Vascular Dementia, and Lewy Body Dementia.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
NPH is a brain disorder in which excess cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in the brain’s ventricles, causing forgetfulness and reasoning problems, short-term memory loss, difficulty walking, and loss of bladder control. The Hydrocephalus Association estimates nearly 700,000 adults have normal pressure hydrocephalus. Less than 20 percent of people are properly diagnosed, often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
Parkinson’s disease is a relatively common neurological disorder in older adults and is estimated to affect nearly 2% of those over age 65. Parkinson’s Disease Dementia declines thinking and reasoning that develops in many people living with Parkinson’s at least a year after diagnosis. The brain changes caused by Parkinson’s disease begin in a region that plays a key role in movement, leading to early symptoms that include tremors and shakiness, muscle stiffness, muffled speech, a shuffling step, stooped posture, difficulty initiating movement, and lack of facial expression. As brain changes caused by Parkinson’s gradually spread, they often begin to affect mental functions, including memory and the ability to pay attention, make sound judgments, delusions, depression, and plan the steps needed to complete a task.
Vascular Dementia is a decline in thinking skills caused by conditions that block or reduce blood flow to various brain regions, depriving them of oxygen and nutrients, such as a stroke. A growing number of experts prefer the term “vascular cognitive impairment” (VCI) to “Vascular Dementia” because they feel it better expresses the concept that vascular thinking changes can range from mild to severe. About five percent to 10 percent of people with dementia have Vascular Dementia alone. It is more common as a part of mixed dementia. Learn more about the common warning signs of a stroke.
Korsakoff Syndrome is a chronic memory disorder caused by a severe thiamine deficiency (vitamin B-1). It is mostly caused by alcohol misuse but can also be associated with AIDS, cancers that have spread throughout the body, chronic infections, poor nutrition, and certain other conditions. Korsakoff syndrome causes problems learning new information, inability to remember recent events, and long-term memory gaps. Memory difficulties may be strikingly severe, while different thinking and social skills are relatively unaffected.
Many conditions linked to Dementia start out slowly and gradually get worse. If you or someone you know is experiencing memory difficulties or other changes in thinking skills, don’t ignore them. Schedule a visit with their doctor and communicate the symptoms. Early diagnosis and intervention methods are improving dramatically, and treatment options and sources of support can improve their quality of life.
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