The terms “Alzheimer’s disease” and “dementia” are often used interchangeably. This can lead to some confusion – are they the same thing? If not, what are the differences? And are there different aspects to treatment? How do we determine what type of dementia a loved one has?
“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and these days there is a lot of
focus on awareness and research of this neurocognitive disease,” says Doris Lea, Executive
Director of Hidden Springs of McKinney. “However, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t the only form of
dementia. Dementia is actually a catch-all term that describes a family of cognitive diseases,
while Alzheimer’s disease is one specific form of dementia.”
There are five major types of dementia that make up the vast majority of cases: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy body, Parkinson’s disease and frontotemporal degeneration. However, there are thirteen different types of dementia that have been identified by the medical community to date, and some researchers believe there are many more that still remain undiscovered.
“Most dementias have similarities, which can make it difficult to determine what type of dementia someone has,” says Doris. “And since we currently don’t have a cure for dementia, understanding the different types can be beneficial to a point. However, knowing the differences between the types of dementia can help physicians recommend treatments for each individual, which can help slow the progression of the disease especially in the beginning stages. Knowing the different types of dementia can also let friends and family members know what to look for if they are concerned for a senior loved one.”
The 13 Types of Dementia
The Common Forms
1. Alzheimer’s Disease. This is the most common form of dementia, making up anywhere from 60-80% of cases. Although the “Alzheimer’s gene” was discovered several years back, we still don’t know exactly why someone develops this form of dementia. At the moment, it’s believed to be a mix of lifestyle, environmental and genomic factors. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s are considered to be the “classic” symptoms of dementia, and progress along an easily observed timeline:
– Early stages: Memory loss, inability to find the “right word,” increasingly poor judgement
– Middle stages: Further memory loss, deteriorating physical abilities, mental issues
including paranoia, confusion, anxiety, anger, hallucinations and delusions
– Late stages: Incontinence, further loss of physical abilities, inability to communicate and
ultimately death due to the body shutting down
2. Vascular Dementia. This is the second most-common type of dementia and usually occurs
due to cardiovascular issues, particularly strokes. Vascular dementia happens when strokes
(either large strokes or mini-strokes) cause blood flow to be halted to areas of the brain, which
causes cell death. The symptoms of this form of dementia can vary depending on what area of the brain is affected. Generally, individuals have issues with short-term memory, exhibit
inappropriate behaviors or experience hallucinations. Vascular dementia doesn’t progress in a
steady line like Alzheimer’s disease; rather, the disease progression depends on how and
where the brain damage occurs.
3 & 4. Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia with Lewy Bodies. These two similar-yet-different forms of dementia are due to the development of abnormal proteins in brain nerve cells. PDD develops in individuals with Parkinson’s disease, while LBD can occur in otherwise healthy adults. Symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but in these types of dementia, mobility and motor issues present much sooner than any sort of memory loss or cognitive decline.
5. Frontotemporal Degeneration (FTD). Also known as Pick’s disease or frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), this form of dementia occurs in individuals 60 or younger and doesn’t affect memory. FTD symptoms include loss of motivation, reduced empathy, compulsive behaviors, anxiety, depression and decreased inhibition.
The Rarer Forms
6. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. This type of dementia is also known as the “alcoholic’s
dementia.” It occurs when an individual has a Vitamin B1 deficiency – generally caused by
alcohol abuse. Wernicke-Korsakoff is one of the only dementias that can be lessened or
reversed if the individual makes lifestyle changes.
7. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). CJD is a form of prion disease, which occurs when prion proteins start folding abnormally. This form of dementia progresses rapidly, with nearly all individuals dying within a year of exhibiting symptoms. Thankfully, this form of dementia is
8. Huntington’s Disease. Huntington’s is a genetically inherited disorder that develops between the ages of 30 and 50. It affects thinking skills, mood, judgement and motor skills – and unfortunately, if you inherit the gene, you will develop this disease.
9. Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). This incredibly rare form of dementia causes individuals to
experience insomnia, vivid dreams, anxiety and hallucinations. Eventually, the individual
becomes unable to speak as memory loss develops and motor abilities deteriorate.
10. Dementia Caused by HIV/AIDS. This form of dementia occurs in people who have AIDS or HIV, and causes difficulty with concentration, memory and attention. It also manifests as behavioral or personality changes.
11. Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA). This form of dementia manifests as a progressive,
gradual deterioration of the brain’s cortex. It’s very similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but manifests earlier (between the ages of 50 and 65).
12. Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH). This form of dementia is a neurodegenerative
disease caused by the buildup of excess cerebrospinal fluid building in the brain’s ventricle. It
causes difficulty walking, mental issues and loss of bladder control.
13. Mixed Dementia. This final form of dementia is a combination of more than one type of
dementia, generally Alzheimer’s disease plus another form of dementia. Symptoms can vary
depending on what type of cognitive decline is present.
Although we can’t always determine the particular type of dementia someone has, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms and take steps to ensure the highest quality of life for each individual. As science and the medical profession continue to do research, we as a society will continue to evolve best practices to help those with dementia benefit and live fulfilling lives.
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