11 Types of Dementia

Dementia refers to the deterioration of intellectual abilities – including memory – that interferes with an individual’s ability to function in daily life and maintain an independent living lifestyle. Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a series of strokes. Alzheimer’s disease is the more prevalent cause of dementia, but not the only one. Not everyone with memory loss has dementia. For a doctor to diagnose the condition, an individual must meet certain criteria, including impaired spatial and motor skills, language, judgment, attention, memory, functioning, and orientation. If you have a family member or friend with dementia, here’s what you need to know about their condition.

About Dementia

Dementia refers not to a specific disease but to a range of symptoms that often occur in conjunction with a reduction in memory and other cognitive skills serious enough to impair daily functioning. Many people believe dementia is the same as “senility.” However, losing mental functioning is not simply an expected component of growing older. Alzheimer’s disease makes up approximately 60 to 80 percent of dementia instances. Vascular dementia, which can result from a stroke, constitutes the second-leading cause of dementia. A variety of other causes can contribute to the condition. For an impairment to be medically defined as dementia, two or more primary aspects of mental functioning must be negatively impacted:
  • Language and communication abilities.
  • Memory.
  • Judgment and reasoning.
  • Visual perception.
  • Focus and attention.
Individuals with dementia may experience challenges with their short-term memory, including keeping track of personal belongings like wallets and purses. In addition, they may have problems with household tasks like preparing meals. Traveling outside their own neighborhood or getting to appointments on time also may pose obstacles in daily life. Some types of dementia are considered to be progressive and involve symptoms that begin subtly and become worse over time. Anyone showing signs of altered thinking abilities should see a doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and possible treatment.

Symptoms of Dementia

The signs and symptoms of dementia can vary significantly depending on the form of the disorder. However, dementia typically involves problems with focus and attention, language and communication, memory, judgment and reasoning and visual perception. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, causes severe challenges with thinking, memory and behavior. Symptoms usually begin slowly and worsen over time. In 2011, the guidelines for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s were revised to reflect that the condition is a brain disease that progresses slowly and often begins long before symptoms become noticeable. Eventually, symptoms become serious enough to interfere with or halt the ability to engage in normal daily tasks. Trouble remembering conversations can signal the presence of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. In addition, difficulty recalling events, activities or names often stands as an early clinical sign of the disease. Early symptoms also include depression and apathy. As the disease progresses, an individual may experience disorientation and confusion, trouble with speaking and walking, behavioral changes, reduced communication, and poor judgment.

Causes of Dementia

The most frequently cited cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, strokes can cause damage to blood vessels leading to vascular dementia, the second-leading type of the disorder. Many other conditions may cause or influence the development of dementia. Some potential causes – including vitamin deficiencies and problems with the thyroid – can be reversed with appropriate treatment. Additional causes include brain injuries, drug toxicity, brain tumors or infections, AIDS, alcoholism, meningitis, syphilis, Pick disease, hypothyroidism and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In some instances, the underlying medical conditions that lead to dementia can be treated and some or all mental functioning lost to the disorder can be restored. In most cases, however, dementia is irreversible. Regardless of the medical problem responsible for the development of dementia, the condition results from damage to cells in the brain. The damage causes problems with the capacity of brain cells to communicate with each other, resulting in abnormalities in behavior, thinking and feelings. The brain includes a number of separate regions that bear responsibility for a variety of functions such as memory and motion. When cells in a specific portion of the brain become damaged, the functionality associated with that region becomes compromised. Different forms of dementia cause damage in different areas of the brain. Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, causes elevated levels of proteins both within and outside of brain cells that compromise cell health and impair normal cellular communication. The disease often causes the earliest damage to the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Diagnosis, Treatment and Care

With treatment, certain conditions that can cause dementia – including problems with the thyroid, vitamin deficiencies, depression, side effects of medication, and alcohol abuse – can improve. The memory and thinking problems associated with those underlying dementia causes also may become better. If you or a family member are experiencing changes in your thinking, memory or behavior, it’s important to seek treatment from a medical professional as quickly as possible. Many types of dementia cause symptoms that may begin slowly but become worse over time. Evaluation by a medical professional may determine that a treatable medical condition is behind the dementia symptoms; early diagnosis can provide the opportunity to benefit from all current treatments, including participation in studies and clinical trials when appropriate. No individual test can detect the presence of dementia. Medical professionals diagnose dementia – including Alzheimer’s disease – based on physical exams, a variety of lab tests, review of the medical history, and observation of changes in thinking and functioning associated with the different forms of dementia. Based on symptoms and other factors, a doctor may be able to diagnose dementia but unable to diagnose a specific form of the condition. In some cases, a specialist such as a neurologist may assist in diagnosis. Treatment depends on the specific form of dementia and its cause. Some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, are progressive and cannot be cured; treatment then relies on slowing the progression or lessening symptoms. Examples of treatment methods include:
  • Vitamins for a specific deficiency.
  • Surgery to remove a tumor in the brain.
  • Medications to treat an infection like encephalitis.
  • Thyroid therapy for hypothyroidism.
  • Ceasing of medications that may contribute to confusion or disorientation.
  • Medication for depression.

Risk and Prevention

Age and genetics are two significant risk factors for dementia that cannot be altered. In addition, cardiovascular function can play a significant role in the development of dementia. Damage to blood vessels throughout the body also can damage vessels in the brain, which can rob brain cells of nourishment and oxygen. Changes in the brain’s blood vessels have a link to vascular dementia. New research continues to uncover additional types of risk along with methods for preventing the disorder. Getting physical exercise on a regular basis may help reduce the risk of developing some forms of dementia. Research has suggested that exercise may provide direct benefit to brain cells by improving oxygen and blood flow reaching the brain. In addition, diet may have a major impact on the health of the brain due to the relationship to heart health. Current medical guidelines promote eating in a healthy manner such as the Mediterranean diet – with minimal red meat and ample fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, fish and shellfish – to protect your brain.

Types of Dementia

If your family member is living with dementia, it’s important to understand the underlying causes, symptoms and potential treatments. We’ve put together a brief primer on the various types of dementia to assist you as you investigate supportive care options.

1. Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for up to 80 percent of cases of dementia. Depression and memory loss are often early signs, but the condition causes brain cell death, leading to confusion, mood changes, and difficulty walking and speaking. More than five million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease

2. Cruetzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), is an incredibly rare and degenerative brain disorder. Approximately 300 cases are diagnosed in the United States in a year. Though CJD is not an easy diagnosis to receive, there are resources to ease the burden and eliminate the unknowns. Learn more about Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

3. Dementia with Lewy Bodies

Dementia with Lewy Bodies or Lewy Bodies Dementia is the 3rd most common type of dementia accounting for approximately 10-25% of dementia cases. Unlike other forms of dementia, memory loss or impairment is not the first or most recognizable symptom of DLB. Instead, persistent confusion or delusion are linked to Dementia with Lewy Bodies, as are other symptoms. Learn more about Dementia with Lewy Bodies disease.

4. Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is one of the lesser known forms of dementia diagnosed today. The name “frontotemporal” is appropriate because it identifies the part of the brain that is damaged with this type of dementia. The main difference between FTD and Alzheimer’s disease is the age patients begin presenting with symptoms. FTD symptoms typically begin to appear between ages 45 and 65, where symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease generally occur for people over the age of 65. Learn more about Frontotemporal Dementia

5. Huntington’s Disease

Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that is fatal and that causes a progressive, aggressive breakdown of the nerve cells in the brain. Huntington’s disease (HD) is inherited and causes a progressive degeneration of the nerve cells within the brain. The disease has a widespread impact on functional abilities and generally results in trouble with movement and cognitive thinking. Learn more about Huntington’s Disease

6. Mild Cognitive Impairment

MCI is the difference between the decline in cognitive function due to aging and a decline due to suspected dementia. Mild Cognitive Impairment presents laps in judgment, language, memory, and thinking problems that appear greater or more severe than are associated with age-related change. Learn more about Mild Cognitive Impairment.

7. Mixed Dementia

The symptoms of mixed dementia vary, depending on which region or regions of the brain have been affected and depending on the type of brain changes that are involved. In some cases, the symptoms of mixed dementia clearly suggest that multiple types of dementia are present in a person’s body and brain. The most common combination in mixed dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, but other combinations exist as well. Learn more about Mixed Dementia.

8. Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH) is when cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in excess within the ventricles of the brain and it typically affects people between the ages of 60 and 70. Because NPH has symptoms that overlap with multiple forms of dementia, medical professionals can’t be certain how many people suffer from the brain disorder. Learn more about Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus

9. Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder around 2% of adults age 65 and older. A person with Parkinson’s disease often struggles to ascertain the steps needed in order to complete a specific task or tasks. It is estimated that between 50 and 80% of people with Parkinson’s disease eventually end up with dementia as the disease continues to progress. Learn more about Parkinson’s Disease.

10. Posterior Cortical Atrophy

PCA is a gradual, progressive degeneration of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, in the back of the head. Over time, the disease is known to cause atrophy of the part of the brain known as the cerebral cortex. This atrophy of the posterior part of the brain results in the progressive disruption of complex visual processing. Learn more about Posterior Cortical Atrophy.

11. Vascular Dementia

In Vascular dementia, the vessels that supply the blood to the brain become increasingly blocked or narrowed. As the brain fails to receive the right amount of blood – and therefore the oxygen and nutrients necessary for survival – strokes often take place.  Vascular dementia (also called “multi-infarct dementia”) is the second most diagnosed form of dementia. It is not nearly as well-known or understood as Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Learn more about Vascular Dementia.