Types of Dementias and How They Differ


There is in fact a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s which is important to understand. Dementia is a general, umbrella term that describes a set of symptoms caused by many different diseases or disorders of the brain. The symptoms may include memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, disorientation in time and space, impaired judgement, problems with abstract thinking, misplacing things, changes in behavior and personality, and loss of initiative.


Under the umbrella term of dementia, there are dozens of conditions which share the set of symptoms. The four most common ones are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body disease. A person can have one type of dementia or there can be overlap between the diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for about 70% of all cases. It was discovered over one hundred years ago and is the one that has been researched the most. All four types of dementia share something else in common – they are progressive, neurodegenerative and terminal conditions.


What are the differences between the four main causes of dementia?


Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by shrinkage or atrophy of the brain in certain regions including the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, and the temporal lobe. Damage in these parts of the brain can cause problems with short term memory, logical thinking, planning and organizing, and getting lost in familiar surroundings. A person may also struggle with language and their personality may change dramatically.


Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia.  Approximately 20% of people living with dementia have a vascular type. It occurs when blood vessels in the brain are damaged and often results after a stroke or can develop after several mini strokes over time. Symptoms can be widespread and may include changes in thinking, executive function, disorientation, speaking or comprehension.


Frontotemporal dementia most frequently occurs in people under the age of 65 although it can be diagnosed in older adults as well. Atrophy of the brain occurs in the frontal and temporal lobes, hence the name frontotemporal. Common symptoms include changes in behavior, impaired judgement and decision-making abilities, and problems with language. A person may also become less inhibited and make inappropriate comments.


Lewy body disease is often characterized by hallucinations and this may be one of the first symptoms. A person may see shapes, persons or animals that aren’t there but are very realistic to them. There may also be problems with movement, as also seen in Parkinson’s disease. Other symptoms may include problems with cognition and thinking, sleep disturbances, apathy, depression and inattention.


There’s still a lot that is unknown about all four of the most common causes of dementia. A great deal of research is being done to try to find better ways to diagnose each one earlier in the course of the condition. Diagnosis of any of the diseases that cause dementia is complex and It’s not uncommon for a person with dementia to be misdiagnosed with the wrong cause. A definitive diagnosis can only be done by an autopsy.


Questions about caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease? Takacs McGinnis may be able to help. Just give us a call.

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