Understanding the Different Types of Dementia

With proper care and support, even the most advanced dementia patients can have comfortable, safe, rich lives. Providing that care requires an in-depth understanding of the condition and each individual patient, as well as ongoing medical attention. This is what can make it so difficult for families to care for their loved ones without sacrificing their own quality of life.

Dementia isn’t a single condition with a single cause. It’s a group of symptoms that all involve decreased cognitive functioning. There are many ways those symptoms show themselves, each with their own distinct causes and treatments.

With the right care and support, dementia patients can have rich lives.

Understanding the basics of dementia can help families find the right care for their loved ones. Here’s a basic rundown of the unique types of dementia to help you get familiar with the symptoms and underlying causes.

Dementia Basics: Common Symptoms

Before we explore types of dementia, let’s cover what they have in common. Signs of decreased cognitive function and psychological symptoms are typical in dementia cases. If you’re worried a loved one may have dementia, keep an eye out for:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty communicating or using words
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Loss of spatial abilities (i.e. getting lost)
  • Personality changes
  • Signs of mood disorder like depression or frequent agitation
  • Anxiety and/or paranoia
  • Inappropriate behavior

Types of Dementia

Every case of dementia is caused by loss of nerve cells in the brain. Where the damage is located is what differentiates one type from another.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s is the most well-known and most common type of dementia. Despite this, we don’t fully understand why Alzheimer’s occurs. We know it’s caused by plaque and protein structures interfering with healthy neurons in the brain. The condition is characterized by a gradual decline in cognitive functioning including memory, language, problem solving, and judgment.

While modern medicine is still trying to understand what causes Alzheimer’s, we do know how to identify and care for its symptoms. They can appear as early as a person’s 40s or 50s, but usually become noticeable in their late 60s or early 70s.

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is caused by brain damage or constricting blood vessels that reduce blood flow to the brain. This type of dementia can cause strokes, which makes it very important to seek regular medical treatment if diagnosed with this condition.

Symptoms may include difficulty with problem solving, confusion, and loss of coordination and balance. Memory issues tend to be less prominent in these patients than other types of dementia.

Frontotemporal dementia

This is a rare form of dementia caused by the breakdown of neurons in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which are often associated with personality and behavior. This is the result of a genetic mutation that causes these two sections of the brain to shrink while the plaques and proteins common in other types of dementia form in the brain.

Patients with frontotemporal dementia often experience dramatic shifts in personality, emotional regulation, and behaviors. Uncharacteristic or inappropriate behavior and difficulty speaking are common symptoms, with many patients forgetting certain common words and struggling to construct full sentences. In rare cases, they may also have motor disorders similar to those seen in Parkinson’s disease (e.g. tremoring, muscle rigidity, etc.). 

Lewy body dementia

“Lewy bodies” are protein clusters that build up in the brain. These bodies interfere with neurons and disrupt the brain’s natural processes. They can cause a wide array of symptoms, having been found in those with Parkinson’s disease as well as Alzheimer’s, both of which can cause dementia symptoms.

Changes in sleep patterns and odd sleep behaviors (like sleepwalking, acting out dreams while still asleep) are often associated with this form of dementia. Hallucinations, difficulty focusing, and movement issues are also common.

Mixed dementia

As the name suggests, mixed dementia is a combination of two or more types of dementia. This can make symptoms much more difficult to diagnose and treat, as there may be several underlying causes.

Is Dementia Preventable?

There are some known risk factors that may increase the risk of dementia. Greater incidence of dementia has been noted in patients who:

  • Do not exercise regularly
  • Eat an unhealthy (highly processed, high trans/saturated fat) diet
  • Drink alcohol to excess
  • Have unmanaged or untreated diabetes
  • Smoke
  • Are exposed to significant air pollution
  • Experience brain injury or head trauma later in life

It’s important to note many types of dementia are highly influenced by genetics. While the behaviors on this list can harm a patient’s health, developing dementia isn’t a sign someone “didn’t take care of themselves” or brought on their own condition. There are many potential, underlying causes of dementia. It’s important to treat each case with compassion, respect, and care. The goal is always to work with the symptoms as they exist now, and provide the right level of care.