If you or a loved one may be showing signs of dementia, understanding the different types can help you on the road to a diagnosis. Seniorly breaks down the types of dementia in this helpful guide.
From Alzheimer's to Lewy-Body to Parkinson's, understanding the distinct types of dementia can be hard, yet it's often the key to helping us better support our loved ones affected by these cognitive challenges. So whether you've received an official diagnosis from a medical professional or just want to learn a bit more, you've come to the right place.
Dementia is an umbrella term for a condition that affects people who are experiencing a change in normal cognitive function, including reasoning, memory, thinking and other daily activities. And while we often use the term dementia in a categorical sense, there are actually over 100 types of dementia. This guide will cover ten of the most common types of dementia, their symptoms and treatment options. And while this information may certainly be an entry point into the world of dementia, the only way to confirm suspicions is to work with a licensed medical doctor to get a diagnosis.
If you think you or a loved one may be facing a dementia diagnosis, it may be helpful to start a dementia journal before your visit, which will help you communicate more effectively with your doctor about what you're noticing and experiencing.
There are two types of Alzheimer’s disease - early-onset dementia (or younger onset dementia) and late-onset. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is seen in a small minority of patients and tends to affect people earlier in life, usually between the ages of 45-60. Over 90% of Alzheimer’s diagnosis involve late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and therefore we will spend the remainder of this section discussing the late-onset type.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60-80 percent of dementia cases. And Alzheimer's is on the rise; a 2023 study by Seniorly showed that the number of people in the U.S. is expected to nearly double by 2060.
Alzheimer’s disease is believed to be caused by amyloid plaques and tau tangles formation in the brain, which results in the death of brain cells in the parts of the brain responsible for collecting and storing new information. This loss of brain cells results in loss of overall brain tissue, and subsequent shrinking of the brain. This loss of brain cells results in the impaired cognitive function associated with Alzheimer’s dementia.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of 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.”
Here are some common symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are two FDA-approved treatments which may help slow down cognitive decline.
There are a variety of FDA-approved drugs that help to make cognitive, behavioral, and psychological symptoms of Alzheimer’s more manageable.
Find Alzheimer’s support groups in your area for more help supporting a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.
Vascular dementia, also called vascular cognitive impairment, accounts for around 20 percent of dementia cases.
According to Mayo Clinic, “Vascular dementia is a general term describing problems with reasoning, planning, judgment, memory and other thought processes caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to your brain.”
This type of dementia can occur when a person’s brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients. A common example of a condition that could cause vascular dementia is a stroke.
A loved one with vascular dementia may show early symptoms. However, the symptoms shown will depend on which part of the brain was deprived of oxygen and nutrients.
There is no cure for vascular dementia, and currently, no FDA-approved drugs for its treatment. However, clinical trials have shown that some medications used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s may also benefit people diagnosed with vascular dementia.
The most effective way to reduce the risk of vascular dementia is to reduce the risk of conditions like heart disease and stroke by:
Dementia with Lewy bodies is one of two types of Lewy body dementia. The broader term, Lewy body dementia, encompasses both dementia with Lewy bodies and Parkinson’s disease dementia and affects around 1.4 million Americans.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “DLB is a type of progressive dementia that leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning and independent function.”
If you or a loved one has dementia with Lewy bodies, some or all of the following symptoms may be observed.
While there is currently no cure for dementia with Lewy bodies, there are medications and treatment methods that help manage symptoms. A physician may recommend these drugs:
Nearly one million Americans are living with Parkinson’s disease. Many people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease later develop Parkinson’s disease dementia.
The Parkinson’s Foundation describes PDD as “significant or severe memory and thinking problems” as Parkinson’s disease progresses.
There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease or PDD. However, treatment and therapy may help alleviate PDD symptoms. A physician may recommend the following treatments:
It’s important to know that some medications or treatments prescribed for Parkinson’s may worsen Parkinson’s disease dementia symptoms.
Mixed dementia, or dementia-multifactorial, is the term used to describe people with more than one type of dementia. For example, a mixed dementia diagnosis may include Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. Or a variety of other types of dementias.
Mixed dementia can be difficult to diagnose because a person with mixed dementia may show symptoms of multiple types of dementia. But despite the challenges with diagnosis, researchers now believe mixed dementia is quite common.
Symptoms and treatments for mixed dementia vary, depending on the types of dementia diagnosed.
Despite the headlines about Bruce Willis' recent dementia diagnosis, frontotemporal dementia is actually quite rare, diagnosed in around 50,000 to 60,000 Americans. Approximately 60 percent of people diagnosed with FTD are between 45 and 65.
According to the National Institute on Aging (a branch of NIH), “Frontotemporal disorders are the result of damage to neurons in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.” This type of damage gradually causes significant changes in thinking, memory, and behaviors. The frontal lobe of the brain is associated with development of personality and inhibition control (think of the frontal lobe as the “braking” function in your brain). And therefore, damage to these brain regions results in many of the symptoms described below.
FTD begins with noticeable behavioral changes. Some of the symptoms of FTD include:
Treatment for frontotemporal dementia is largely symptomatic. These interventions vary from speech therapy to antidepressant and antipsychotic medications. Although these medications were originally developed to treat depression, the FTD patient’s lack of dopamine means they can also help alleviate some of their symptoms throughout the various stages of frontotemporal dementia.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare, rapid-onset dementia occurring worldwide in one in every million people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes CJD as “A rapidly progressive, invariably fatal neurodegenerative disorder believed to be caused by an abnormal isoform of a cellular glycoprotein (note - this is a protein with a sugar sticking out of it) known as the prion protein.” In other words, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease happens when a specific cell protein in the brain called the prion protein isn't working as it should.
Remarkably, this bad prion protein starts a domino-like effect in your brain, converting other ‘good’ prion protein into the ‘bad’ misfolded versions of the protein. This bad domino then spreads all over the brain causing rapid, widespread and irreversible loss of brain tissue. This is the same process that occurs in the brains of cows that suffer from Mad-Cow Disease.
Diagnosis of CJD is challenging, as no current tests can conclusively diagnose it, and 90 percent of those diagnosed pass away within one year. If you or a loved one has CJD, here are some symptoms you may notice:
There is currently no treatment that can cure CJD. However, certain drugs may be used to alleviate symptoms , such as the use of antidepressants for anxiety and depression.
Normal pressure hydrocephalus affects an estimated 700,000 Americans. This disorder primarily affects older adults and unlike many other forms of dementia, can be improved through specific treatment. The disorder is linked to increased pressure in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The CSF is a fluid in which the brain is suspended.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain's ventricles or cavities. It occurs if the normal flow of CSF throughout the brain and spinal cord is blocked in some way. This causes the ventricles to enlarge, putting pressure on the brain.” And when brain pressure is increased, it results in mechanical stress on the brain, and impairs brain function in any brain regions being compressed.
Though symptoms of NPH can vary, the most common distinguishable characteristics are:
Treatment for people with NPH involves a procedure in which a surgeon places a shunt in the brain. The shunt drains excess CSF out of the brain, reducing pressure and allowing it to return to normal size. Once recovered, regular follow-ups are necessary.
Huntington’s disease is a fatal genetic disorder that progressively breaks down the nerve cells in the brain. The Huntington’s Disease Society of America reports, “Today, there are approximately 41,000 symptomatic Americans and more than 200,000 at risk of inheriting the disease.” This disease usually appears in individuals in their 30s and 40s.
Huntington's disease is caused by one single defective gene inherited from a parent. A child with a parent who has the defective gene has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the defective gene themselves. The good news is that not every person with the abnormal huntington gene develops symptoms of the condition, even though they can still pass along the gene to their children.
Early symptoms of HD include:
Although researchers identified the gene that causes HD in 1993, there is still no cure for the disease. Treatment options include drugs to help manage symptoms.
While most experts believe Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome has a low prevalence, some suspect that symptoms are under-reported and therefore under-diagnosed.
The Family Caregiver Alliance site explains, "WKS is caused by a deficiency in the B vitamin thiamine. Thiamine plays a role in metabolizing glucose to produce energy for the brain. An absence of thiamine, therefore, results in an inadequate supply of energy to the brain, particularly the hypothalamus.”
Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome includes two stages: Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff amnesic syndrome. But, someone can have Korsakoff syndrome without first having Wernicke encephalopathy.
This particular type of dementia is generally associated with alcoholism but may also be a result of other conditions, such as malnutrition, which cause harmful nutritional deficiencies in the body.
Symptoms vary, depending on whether a person has both stages of WKS, but the most common symptoms are:
Medical experts recommend injectable thiamine to improve the acute symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy. Continued treatment of thiamine, along with magnesium and other vitamins, is recommended for those who later develop Korsakoff syndrome.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Abstaining from alcohol and maintaining a healthy diet is a cornerstone of effective long-term treatment.”
Caring for family members with dementia can be overwhelming, but Seniorly is here to help by connecting you with a network of experts ready to help you ensure your loved one gets the best in specialized care.
If you have a loved one who is in need of structured memory care support, Seniorly can help you find senior housing communities that specialize in memory care for those with Alzheimer's and other related dementias.
Ashlee Tilford writes for Seniorly on the topics of dementia and the aging experience. A professional writer by trade, Ashlee brings a depth of personal experience with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. For more than a decade, Ashlee served as Congressional Ambassador for the Alzheimer's Association and has been an active supporter of and fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Association since 2011.
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