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More than Alzheimer’s: Understanding types of dementia

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For those unfamiliar with Alzheimer’s and dementia, asking them to list symptoms beyond memory loss may prove challenging. It’s understandable – a diagnosis of dementia can mean a whole host of symptoms.

Dementia is an umbrella term that covers a range of cognitive disorders characterized by memory loss, impaired thinking, and altered behavior. As our understanding of neurological conditions improves, we've come to recognize various types of dementias, each with a unique set of symptoms and underlying causes.

Awareness of a diagnosis and how each subtype can affect a person provides the caregiver and surrounding support system a way to better anticipate needs and provide care at home. Some individuals may also suffer from more than one type of dementia, or what is called mixed dementia.

It’s a growing issue. In Illinois alone, there are 250,000 estimated dementia cases, or about 12 percent of the population that is 65 and older. Highlighted below are some of the more prominent types of dementia – keep in mind, though, there are hundreds of subtypes. 

Alzheimer's disease

While the terms dementia and Alzheimer's disease are often used interchangeably, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for around 70% of dementia cases.

Memory loss, confusion, and difficulty in performing familiar tasks are typical symptoms of Alzheimer's. As the disease progresses, individuals may experience personality changes and difficulties with communication.

It is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder marked by the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, leading to the death of brain cells and subsequent cognitive decline. This can be a long process, and damage to the brain may happen years before cognitive problems are apparent.

Lewy body dementia

Lewy body dementia (LBD) is characterized by the presence of abnormal protein deposits called Lewy bodies in the brain. These deposits disrupt normal brain function, leading to fluctuations in cognitive abilities, visual hallucinations, and motor symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease. 

While an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can typically be made in the mid 60s, LBD typically begins at age 50 and older. And while Alzheimer’s seems to affect women more than men, LBD affects slightly more men than women.

LBD often causes significant variations in alertness and attention, making diagnosis and management particularly challenging. Sleep can also be heavily disrupted as insomnia can increase and drowsiness and sleepiness during the day can reduce sleep quality at night.

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia arises from conditions, such as blood clots, that disrupt blood flow to the brain. This can be due to stroke, small vessel disease, or other vascular-related issues. The cognitive decline in vascular dementia can be sudden or gradual, depending on the underlying cause.

Symptoms vary but often include difficulties with problem-solving, reasoning, and planning. This may manifest itself in having problems following directions or learning new information. Individuals with vascular dementia may also exhibit motor deficits and have trouble with coordination. Like Alzheimer’s, this type tends to surface for those in their mid 60s and older.

Frontotemporal dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) refers to a group of disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

The frontal lobes direct executive function, including planning, prioritizing, and multitasking. It also affects movement and following social norms. In turn, FTD can lead to inappropriate social behavior, emotional blunting, and speech difficulties. Issues with balance can be common, including difficulty in walking and shaky hands.

FTD tends to strike at a younger age than the other major subtypes, typically between 40 and 65 years old. There can be a wide variety in how it affects a person – some may decline rapidly in a few years, others may see minimal changes over a longer period of time. Different symptoms arise later in the disease progression as FTD affects more parts of the brain after initially starting in the frontal lobes.

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Understanding the different types of dementias is crucial for early diagnosis, proper treatment, and compassionate care. Even for those not immediately connected to someone diagnosed with dementia, building community awareness of why someone might act differently also develops a more compassionate society to some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

As science progresses and we learn more about the complexities of these disorders, we move closer to a future where effective treatments may lessen the burden of dementia and enhance the quality of life for both patients and their caregivers.

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