A few decades ago, only a few medical specialists would have heard of Alzheimer’s disease. “Senility” was considered inevitable for anyone who lived long enough. But as understanding of the brain has grown, science has been able to identify and differentiate many causes of dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, but other brain disorders can and do frequently cause dementia.
These types of dementia often present themselves with very similar symptoms. Even trained physicians may have a trouble determining for certain which type of dementia a patient has, and some people experience multiple types of dementia concurrently, which is called “mixed dementia.” That said, newly acquired knowledge and technologies are allowing doctors to diagnose and distinguish different types of dementias better than ever before.
Here are the four most prevalent forms of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is by far the most well-known and common type of dementia.
- Memory loss
- Difficulty communicating
Cause: The mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s disease aren’t well understood and there are competing hypothesis, but the most distinguishing feature of Alzheimer’s disease is the buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain. It’s widely believed that these brain changes are behind the disease.
Treatments or therapies: There are many therapies, both pharmaceutical and non-chemical which can temporarily increase functioning and improve the spirits of the person with Alzheimer’s disease, but no treatment has proven to be effective. The Alzheimer’s Association says, “At this time there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”
The U.S. government has made Alzheimer’s research a high priority and set the optimistic goal of finding a cure by 2025. Vigorous research continues and numerous possible treatments are being investigated.
Vascular dementia is also known as “multi-infarct dementia” or “post-stroke dementia” and is the second most common cause of dementia.
- Memory loss
- Impaired judgment
- Decrease ability to plan
- Loss of motivation
Cause: Bleeding within the brain from a stroke cause brain damage.
Treatments or therapies: Vascular dementia cannot be cured, but people who have the ailment are treated to prevent further brain injury from the underlying cause of the ailment. Like Alzheimer’s disease, numerous medication and therapies may be used to help manage the symptoms.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy body dementia is the third most common cause of dementia, and is also called “cortical Lewy body disease” or “diffuse Lewy body disease.”
- Sleep problems
- Memory loss
- Frequent swings in alertness
Cause: Lewy bodies abnormal proteins that somehow appear in nerve cells and impair functioning.
Treatments or therapies: There is no known treatment to reverse Lewy body dementia or address its underlying cellular cause, but as with Alzheimer’s and other the other main types of dementia, a wide array of therapies and treatment are used to improve the patient’s quality of live and alleviate symptoms.
Frontotemporal dementia is fairly rare, but believed to be the fourth most common type of dementia. Unlike the types of dementia discussed previously, frontotemporal dementia is marked more by behavioral and emotional changes than by cognitive impairment. In fact, memory is preserved in people with frontotemporal dementia.
- Decreased inhibition (frequently leading to inappropriate behavior)
- Apathy and loss of motivation
- Decreased empathy
- Repetitive of compulsive behaviors
- Anxiety and depression
Cause: Frontotemporal dementia occurs when the frontal or temporal lobes of the brain are damaged or shrink.
Treatments or therapies: Frontotemporal dementia cannot be cured or reversed, but doctors will use medicines to treat uncomfortable or problematic symptoms.
Other Causes of Dementia
Just about any condition that causes damage to the brain or nerve cells can cause dementia. For example, people with Parkinson’s disease will often exhibit dementia in the later stages of their illness. Huntington’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease and alcoholism can all lead to (currently) irreversible cognitive impairment.