Dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a range of symptoms characterized by a decline in cognitive ability or memory, severe enough to disrupt a person’s ability to perform daily activities. Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells that interferes with the ability of cells to communicate with each other, causing changes to normal cognitive, behavioral and emotional responses.
Symptoms of dementia can vary widely, but at least two of the following core mental functions must be impacted to be considered dementia: memory, communication and language, ability to focus, reasoning and judgment, or visual perception.
Types of Dementia
- Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Alzheimer’s is a slow, progressive brain disease that begins before symptoms are apparent. Early symptoms include short-term memory loss, apathy, and depression. As the disease progresses, other symptoms can appear such as impaired communication, poor judgment, disorientation and confusion, behavior changes, and difficulty with swallowing, speaking or walking.
- Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia. Also known as multi-infarct or post-stroke dementia, vascular dementia occurs after a patient has a stroke. This type of dementia occurs from blood vessel blockage or damage from strokes or bleeding in the brain. It accounts for about 10 percent of dementia cases. Early symptoms can include impaired judgment or the inability to make decisions, plan or organize.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rapidly fatal disease that impairs memory and causes behavioral changes and problems with coordination. CJD is the most common human form of a group of rare brain disorders affecting mammals. Mad Cow disease is a variant form of CJD that occurs in cattle and has been transmitted to humans in rare circumstances.
- Frontotemporal dementia affects nerve cells in the front and side regions of the brain. The term “frontotemporal dementia” includes dementias such as behavioral variant FTD, primary progressive aphasia, Pick’s disease, corticobasal degeneration and progressive supranuclear palsy. Symptoms often include changes in behavior or personality, and difficulty with language.
- Huntington’s disease is a progressive disorder caused by a defective gene on chromosome 4, which causes abnormalities in brain protein. Symptoms include abnormal involuntary body movements, irritability and mood changes, and a drastic decline in cognitive and reasoning skills.
- Parkinson’s disease is caused by abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein in an area deep in the substantia nigra area of the brain. These clumps can cause degeneration of dopamine-producing nerve cells. The most common symptom is involuntary, uncontrollable body movements. Parkinson’s is progressive, and it often results in dementia similar to Alzheimer’s or Lewy Bodies dementia.
- Lewy Bodies dementia (DLB) is caused by abnormal clumps of the protein alpha-synuclein in the part of the brain known as the cortex. People with DLB can experience memory loss and cognitive impairment similar to Alzheimer’s, but they are more likely to have early symptoms such as visual hallucinations, sleep disturbances, and slowness or gait imbalance similar to those with Parkinson’s disease.
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus is caused by a build-up of fluid in the brain. Normal pressure hydrocephalus can sometimes be treated surgically with a shunt in the brain to drain excess fluid. Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty walking, and the inability to control urination.
- Mixed dementia is the term used to describe dementia linked to more than one cause simultaneously. It is characterized by abnormalities in the brain linked to multiple causes of dementia, usually Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, but also other types of dementia including Lewy Bodies dementia.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a chronic memory disorder often caused by alcohol abuse. It is caused by a severe deficiency of vitamin B-1, thiamine. Thiamine helps brain cells generate energy from sugar, and if the brain cells have low thiamine levels, they may be unable to produce enough energy to function properly. Memory problems can often be severe while other cognitive and social skills may be unaffected.
Get Help Early
If you suspect you or someone you love has dementia, seek professional medical advice to determine the appropriate treatment. Many types of dementia are progressive, so it’s important to see a doctor right away. Early diagnosis is key to detecting treatable conditions and getting the maximum benefit from treatment.
Caring for family members with dementia isn’t easy. If you’d like to learn how we can help, please give us a call.