Basics of Dementia: Types, Signs & Symptoms

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From memory impairment to visual hallucinations the world of dementia is varied and may seem overwhelming.

Let’s start with the word ‘dementia’, it is commonly associated with memory decline, forgetfulness and aging. The word dementia is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple types of brain/memory disorders. It is a term that describes a decline in mental abilities that are severe enough to interrupt daily life. Under the umbrella of dementia lives a variety of diseases related to memory and the brain. Covered here are the following types of dementia: Alzheimer’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, Vascular Dementia and Frontotemporal Dementia.

A good place to start is the most common dementia diagnosis, Alzheimer’s Disease. Often times the words dementia and Alzheimer’s are used interchangeably- although Alzheimer’s is the most common form it is not the only form of dementia and lives within it’s own bubble under the dementia umbrella.

Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive brain disorder that erodes memory and thinking skills overtime to the point that carrying out activities of daily living becomes difficult. With Alzheimer’s Disease plaques and tangles build up in the brain making it difficult for the brain to send messages to the muscles and organs within the body.

Signs to watch for:

  • Struggling to complete a task with multiple steps (ex. Brushing teeth, getting dressed)
  • Losing things or misplacing them in odd places
  • Mood and personality changes
  • An increase in anxiety
  • Shortened attention span
  • Difficulty with language (problems with reading, writing, and working with numbers)
  • Wandering or getting lost
  • Repetitive questions

Another form of dementia found under the umbrella is Lewy Body Dementia which includes symptoms that resemble both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease causing most cases to go widely under-diagnosed. Lewy Body Dementia affects several parts of the brain that control: information processing, perception, language, emotion, movement, sleep, alertness, and memory.

There are two types of Lewy Body Dementia: Dementia with Lewy Bodies and Parkinson’s Disease Dementia.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies: this form of Lewy Body starts with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s Disease, a progressive cognitive decline. Unlike Alzheimer’s, later stage symptoms may include hallucinations, slowness of movement and sleep behavior problems.

Parkinson’s Disease Dementia: this form of Lewy Body starts as a movement disorder and later progresses showing signs of cognitive decline and changes in mood and behavior.

In addition to the signs we mention for Alzheimer’s Disease, people living with Lewy Body Dementia may show these unique signs:

  • Visual hallucinations
  • Trouble with movement that includes tremors, stiffness, slowness and difficulty walking
  • Sleep disorders
  • Trouble regulating temperature, blood pressure, bladder and bowel function.
  • Fluctuation in mood and behavior that includes depression, apathy, anxiety, delusions or paranoia

Typically caused by a blockage or lack of blood flow and oxygen to the brain, Vascular Dementia is another form that lives under the umbrella. A lack of blood and oxygen to the brain can be caused by multiple things including but not limited to a stroke, heart attack and aneurysm. The signs and severity of symptoms is dependent on how long the brain went without oxygen and blood.

Signs to look for:

  • Memory loss
  • Language problems (aphasia)
  • Visual orientation problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired motor skills
  • Unsteady gait
  • Difficulty planning and organizing

The last form of dementia under the umbrella covered in this blog is Frontotemporal Dementia. This form of dementia occurs when nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain are lost, causing the lobes to shrink and effecting behavior, personality, language and movement.

The two common types within Frontotemporal Dementia are:

Frontal Variant: effecting behavior and personality

Primary Progressive Aphasia: effecting communication skills

Signs to look for:

  • Behavior and personality changes (ex. swearing, stealing, change in hygiene level)
  • Socially inappropriate or impulsive repetitive behavior
  • Decreased self-awareness
  • Unable to use or understand language
  • Loss of interest in normal daily activities
  • Signs for Frontotemporal Lobe Dementia tend to show at a younger age then other forms of dementia and may become apparent in someone as young as 40-65 years old.

Caring for someone with any form of dementia comes with unique challenges. It is important to remember you are not alone and that there is a wide range of available services and support. For more information on a specific type of dementia or to talk with one of our dementia experts near you click below.

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