The Three Most Common Types of Dementia and Their Differences

Dementia is a disease that affects millions of seniors in the US every year, causing irreversible loss of memory and functioning. Caregivers of loved ones suffering from dementia should know that there are several different types of the condition, each with its own unique symptoms, as well as some similarities across the board. It can be difficult to determine what type of dementia you or your loved one may be experiencing, and the only way to accurately diagnose any disease is to speak with your doctor.

The three most common types of dementia are:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia
  • Lewy Body Dementia

Read on to learn more about these types of dementia and their symptoms and treatment. 

Alzheimer’s Disease

The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease (AD), affecting one in ten Americans over the age of 65. Most cases are considered late-onset AD, and are diagnosed after age 65. Early-onset AD has the same symptoms but can occur much earlier in life. Despite extensive research, there is a lot about this disease that researchers and doctors don’t yet understand, such as when it actually begins, and what lifestyle choices can benefit a person once they’ve been diagnosed with it. 

What is known about the disease is that it is marked by the presence of two proteins in the brain, plaque amyloids and tau tangles- both of which are easily observed during an autopsy. But, AD can be somewhat difficult to diagnose otherwise. 

AD generally occurs in people over age 65, but there is early-onset AD which usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 50, which affects about 5% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Anyone under age 65 diagnosed with AD is considered early-onset. This type of Alzheimer’s is strongly associated with genetic factors, which can be screened for. The idea of screening for possible AD genes is controversial because the presence of the signal proteins in one’s DNA is no guarantee of manifesting AD and often having those results can cause undue worry. But, in early-onset AD it can provide quick answers to a problem that benefits greatly from early intervention.

Mutations of Alzheimer’s-related genes cause the brain to over-produce amyloid-beta peptide proteins that build up and cause blockages along synapse highways that we use to process thoughts and use our bodies. As a result, thinking “slows down”, memory suffers, and as nerve cells and areas vital to mobility and everyday activities die, our bodies eventually begin to fail as well. It is a grim prognosis, but research has given us insight into ways to lessen symptoms of dementia and improve the quality of life in those with dementia as well as their caregivers.

While little is known about the cause of AD, years of research and careful monitoring of those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias have provided many answers into the symptoms and treatment of the disease.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease symptoms often mimic symptoms of everyday stress, and it can be easy to go for a long time without recognizing a larger issue. While losing a restful night’s sleep can lead to symptoms including an impaired ability to focus, short- and long-term memory loss, and poor mood, these symptoms are also common signs of early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Other symptoms of the condition include:

  • Inability to recall numerical sequences like phone numbers and addresses
  • Difficulty planning and solving problems
  • Trouble completing or remembering to do everyday tasks like self-care and chores
  • Forgetting material you just watched or read, as well as misplacing things often
  • Withdrawing from social situations and changes in personality 

Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease differ only in that they appear between the ages of 30 and 65, whereas late-onset AD is diagnosed in people over age 65. While it may be very difficult to determine if you simply need more sleep or food, one way to recognize a larger memory problem is to note how affected your daily life is by the presence of these symptoms. 

It’s a great idea to keep a log by your bed, where you can keep track of things like your schedule, including sleeping patterns and dietary changes, as well as to help you remember appointments and responsibilities. If you begin to notice problems occurring like bills going unpaid, normal activities being neglected, and the inability to remember phone numbers, names, events, or places, you can take your log to your doctor and analyze any changes in your daily patterns, as well as your noticed memory issues. Your health care team will be able to provide you with many options to help you figure out if you are experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, another type of dementia, or simple forgetfulness.

Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment

As mentioned earlier, early detection could greatly improve quality in later life and possibly extend cognitive health for longer than if Alzheimer’s left untreated. To detect the presence of the genetic markers that indicate Alzheimer’s, a doctor will take a blood sample and read the go over the results with you to help you figure out the best game plan for dealing with the possibility of an AD diagnosis. 

Treatments available for Alzheimer’s disease typically include pharmaceutical agents designed to help regulate the chemical functions in the brain that are causing cognitive decline. See our list of the top dementia medications in 2019 to see a more detailed outline of what people use most often.

These medications are effective for all stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, but it is important to remember that the cognitive benefits received like improved memory and ability to perform instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs) will not remain once you stop taking the medication. 

Some people with Alzheimer’s try holistic treatment methods, which means making healthy changes to all areas of one’s life to create the most chances for success. These areas include:

  • Medical interventions such as adding an AChE inhibitor, or NSAIDS to your regime
  • Environmental changes to lower toxins like mold, and improve water and air quality
  • Dietary factors such as levels of healthy fats and vitamin-E rich fruits like blueberries
  • Fitness- brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF) is known to help cognition in Alzheimer’s patients, and is only produced with constant exercise, particularly. See our list of the 25 best at-home exercise products for seniors to improve your health at home. 
  • Social interaction, which is vital to engage many areas of the brain

It is a great idea to improve your personal health in all of these areas to live your best life, regardless of a dementia diagnosis. 

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia often arises as a result of a stroke when blood supply is cut off from the brain, which can kill brain cells. This type of dementia is different from Alzheimer’s disease in that it is caused by brain damage due to compromised blood flow, where Alzheimer’s has a mostly unknown cause. Anyone with a history of vascular complications, including blood clots and strokes, is at risk for vascular dementia, and the risk compounds with each vascular episode. 

Symptoms of Vascular Dementia

Multiple small strokes may cause more gradual changes in thinking and behavior, as with each stroke more small vessels are damaged that eventually lead to an increasing number of damaging blockages to the brain. Memory loss is inevitably the biggest warning sign of vascular dementia, and after experiencing a vascular event like a stroke or blood clot, it is important to keep track of and work to maintain your cognition.

Symptoms that are specific to vascular dementia tend to be more dramatic directly after a stroke, and include:

  • Disorientation, confusion, and inability to concentrate
  • Trouble with speech, such as being unable to find the right words or pronounce them
  • Vision loss and changes in senses like smell and taste
  • Classic stroke symptoms like a droopy face, body numbness, or paralysis 
  • Uncontrollable emotional behavior like laughing or crying
  • Uncontrollable body movements like hand grabbing or hitting

Much like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, these symptoms can be confused with other problems and need to be discussed with a healthcare professional in order to diagnose. Using blood tests, heart scans, and brain scans, your doctor will be able to help you determine the cause of your memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.

Vascular Dementia Treatment

Vascular dementia is thought to affect in the same way as other forms of dementia. For this reason, AChE inhibitors are among the most common ways to treat dementia symptoms associated with this disorder. To prevent further damage, people at risk of strokes that lead to vascular dementia are often prescribed blood pressure management regimes.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies

The third most common type of dementia is Lewy body dementia (LBD), formed when alpha-synuclein proteins that build up along neurons cause cell damage and eventual neural death. This causes dementia symptoms that are similar to Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, though the hallmark symptom of memory loss often doesn’t present itself until later in the stages of Lewy body dementia.

This type of dementia accounts for five to ten percent of dementia diagnoses and primarily affects people between the ages of 50 and 85. Typically, people live for five to eight years after a diagnosis of LBD. Symptoms and treatment of this disease are similar to other dementias, but have some key differences.

Symptoms of Dementia with Lewy Bodies

Diagnosing any type of dementia is difficult, but there are many cornerstone symptoms that help achieve an accurate diagnosis. In Lewy body dementia, the most prevalent symptoms include:

  • Disrupted sleep- often this is the first sign to look out for further symptoms in years to come. Affected individuals will physically act out dreams, moving while sleeping and sometimes hitting their partners in their sleep.
  • Difficulty with problem-solving abilities such as putting together a puzzle
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Speech problems
  • Visual hallucinations and sensory disturbances
  • Tremors and Parkinsonism often occurs last in LBD, which includes loss of balance
  • Blood pressure can drop with LBD, causing fainting spells
  • Bladder issues and incontinence

To diagnose someone with Lewy body dementia based on symptoms alone, at least two of these symptoms must be present, including dementia. New research has provided insight into brain scans to more accurately diagnose LBD and other brain disorders in a clinic.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies Treatment

Treatment of Lewy body dementia is very similar to the treatment of other dementias. 

Medications such as cholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors are proven safe and effective against the psychological symptoms of dementia, including visual hallucinations and confusion. However, this medication may exacerbate tremors, among other possible interactions. Medications may also be prescribed to assist fruitful REM sleep. Constant monitoring is usually advised in the case of advanced Lewy body dementia, as people may lose the ability to take care of themselves fairly early in the disease. 

Senior Living Options for Seniors with Dementia

The initial stages of dementia are not usually debilitating, and it can be relatively easy to care for yourself at home and bring in a caregiver when you need more help. However, dementia eventually progresses into more serious symptoms like inability to eat and walk, and assisted living may then be a better option to help you enjoy life with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Assisted living facilities that specifically provide care for those with dementia are called memory care centers. Memory care facilities provide medical care for people with dementia and other services including: 

  • Daily care in areas such as grooming, bathing, dressing, and eating
  • Healthy meals, often designed specifically to be dementia-friendly, including fruits and vegetables recommended by top researchers to help fight cognitive decline
  • Access to a wide variety of social activities, recreational activities, and specially designed areas to help people suffering from memory loss continue to engage in their lifelong passions like gardening, church, visiting local attractions, art, and more
  • Housekeeping services 
  • 24-hour monitoring and a secured building to prevent wandering and other dangers

If you’re ready to learn more about assisted living options for those living with a diagnosis of dementia, please reach out for information from our senior care experts here.

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