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Types of dementia

Dementia is a term used to describe a range of different conditions that affect the brain. In fact, dementia isn’t a condition in its own right and is used as an umbrella term to describe a group of symptoms that are caused by a diagnosed health condition, such as Lewy body dementia or Alzheimer’s.

The symptoms of dementia vary greatly depending on the type of dementia someone has and then again with each individual. Generally, dementia affects parts of the brain responsible for memory, thinking, concentration, language, spatial awareness, mood and perception. At first, the symptoms may be fairly mild, but will become progressively more severe and eventually lead to death.

With around 850,000 people currently diagnosed with dementia and this figure only set to rise, it’s really important to understand exactly what dementia is and what the different types of dementia are. That way, we can offer support with a package of dementia care that is tailored for them, enabling them to feel comfortable, safe and looked after at home.


What Are The Different Types Of Dementia?

There are many different types of dementia, but some occur much more than others. Here, we discuss the most common types and what happens in the brain to cause this, starting with the most common form of dementia – Alzheimer’s disease.


Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition that effects memory, speech, orientation and concentration. To begin with, symptoms may be fairly mild, such as forgetting about what you did several hours earlier or struggling to recall the names of everyday objects. As the disease progresses, symptoms will become more severe and also begin to affect speech, spatial awareness, movement, mood and behaviour.

This type of dementia is the most common and occurs in around 50-75 percent of diagnosed cases, generally affecting those over the age of 65. Sadly, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s but there are various drug and therapy treatments available to slow the symptoms down and help people manage them.

Those in the later stages of the condition will require care and support with everyday tasks such as help with personal care, making meals and keeping on top of the housework. Although they may be very confused and forget important things such as grandchildren, friends and even the time period they are currently in, it’s vital to keep in mind that they may become quite confused and frightened when the world around them isn’t how they perceive it to be. With consistent and supportive care, you can ensure that someone ‘lives well’ with Alzheimer’s rather than ‘suffers from’.

What Happens In The Brain To Cause This?

Alzheimer’s disease is named after the German doctor, Alois Alzheimer, who first discovered the build up of abnormal plaques and tangles that cause damage in the brain. These abnormalities are created by a build-up of protein, which causes nerve cells and tissue to die. This then affects the chemical signals in the brain and their ability to send messages on, ultimately affecting the brain’s ability to function properly.

Generally, the hippocampus is the first area of the brain that is affected by this build up of excess protein, which is the area responsible for memory. This is why the symptoms of Alzheimer’s start off as mild memory problems, with issues remember things like words and losing train of thought.

As the protein plaques and tangles begin to increase and spread to more parts of the brain, more areas become affected:

  • Damage to the temporal lobes = difficulty with visually recognising people and objects
  • Damage to right parietal lobe = difficulty with spatial awareness and judging distances
  • Damage to frontal lobes = difficulty with decision making or following a plan

Many memories that have been learnt years ago can still be retained by someone that has Alzheimer’s because they are deep-rooted within the brain. For example, remembering how to play a musical instrument or the words to a much-loved song from their youth.


Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia, which is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. As with Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia is a progressive condition that gets worse over time. It affects the brain’s ability to function properly and can causes problems with thought, concentration, mood, balance and memory. There is no cure for vascular dementia, although there are some treatments that can slow the disease down, such as taking medication to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.

There are several different types of vascular dementia, all of which share the main cause – problems with blood flow in and around the brain. Some are directly linked to strokes, such as stroke-related dementia or post-stroke dementia, whereas others, such as subcortical dementia, are caused when blood vessels don’t develop properly and interfere with the white matter in the brain. Around 10 per cent of those with dementia are diagnosed with mixed dementia, where both vascular and Alzheimer’s has caused the condition.

What Happens In The Brain To Cause This?

Vascular dementia is caused by problems with blood flow to the brain. This happens when blood vessels become blocked, leak or clot, meaning the blood cannot reach the brain cells. If brain cells are starved of blood (which also carry oxygen) for too long, they will die.

Problems with blood flow can be caused by strokes or transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), also known as ‘mini strokes’. They can also occur when small blood vessels begin to narrow in the brain, making it more difficult for the blood to flow through them.

There are certain factors that increase the risk of damage to blood vessels or the likelihood of developing a blood clot, such as leading an unhealthy lifestyle (unbalanced diet, too much alcohol and no exercise), high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Making changes to your lifestyle by doing more exercise, eating a balanced diet and treating underlying health conditions can all play a part in reducing your risk of developing problems with blood vessels, which in turn will reduce your risk or slow down the symptoms (if you have been diagnosed) of vascular dementia.


Lewy Body Dementia (LBD)

Lewy body dementia (LBD) or dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is a condition that affects the brain and nervous system. LBD is a progressive condition and will get gradually worse over a number of years, where there is sadly, no cure.

This is the third most common dementia type after Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, with around 10 to 15 percent of people being diagnosed. It also shares symptoms with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, often being mistaken for the former due to the similarities of problems with memory, thinking and confusion.

Other symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions and disturbed sleep, with one of the main symptoms being problems with movement – very similar to someone with Parkinson’s. This includes stiff limbs, slow movements, tremors, shaking and unsteadiness on their feet.

What Happens In The Brain To Cause This?

First discovered by German doctor Frederic Lewy, Lewy bodies are protein deposits found in nerve cells in the brain and, depending on where they are found, have different effects on the individual.

brainIf Lewy bodies are found at the base of the brain, they create the characteristic problems with movement that is found in both LBD and Parkinson’s. If they are found in the outer layers of the brain, they create issues with cognitive abilities such as the memory, thinking and hallucination symptoms mentioned previously. Someone with LBD may have Lewy bodies in just one or both areas of the brain, which will change the symptoms they have.

Although LBD only tends to affect those over the age of 65, if someone has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and lived with it for a while, they are more likely to develop LBD as their condition progresses and more Lewy bodies appear.


Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) – sometimes referred to as frontal lobe dementia or Pick’s disease – is a less common form of dementia, affecting behaviour and language. Unlike most dementias, FTD tends to affect those mainly between the ages of 45 and 65. However, it is still a progressive condition that will worsen over time.

Symptoms tend to determine the type of FTD that a person is diagnosed with. If they have problems with behaviour, such as a loss of empathy, lack of inhibitions, repetitive tendencies, or behaving socially inappropriately – they may be diagnosed with the behavioural variant of FTD, which is the most common type.

If they have problems with language, such as hesitant speech, leaving out linking words when they talk, difficulties in understanding lots of information or difficulties in understanding the meanings of words – they may be diagnosed with the less common language variant of FTD.

Some may also experience problems with memory, but this generally happens later on into the condition which differs slightly to other forms of dementia, where it occurs much earlier on.

What Happens In The Brain To Cause This?

The term ‘frontotemporal’ refers to the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain that are affected by the condition. The frontal lobe is responsible for emotions, behaviour and problem-solving, whereas the temporal lobes are responsible for the meaning of words and recognition of faces and objects. It is either one or both of these areas that are damaged in the brain of someone with FTD.

Damage occurs when clumps of abnormal protein build up in and around nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, resulting in them being unable to work properly and eventually dying.

It is unclear why this happens, particularly in people that are much younger than others who have different types of dementia. There has been evidence of a genetic link, but further research needs to be carried out to confirm this.


Early/Younger Onset Dementia

Early or Younger Onset Dementia describes any dementia that affects someone who is under the age of 65. All of the conditions mentioned above can be diagnosed in someone under this age, but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and is diagnosed in around a third of early onset cases.

A lady with cerebral palsy and her live-in carerThere are other conditions linked to dementia in younger people too, such as Down’s syndrome and Huntington’s disease.

Korsakoff’s syndrome is a type of Early Onset Dementia that isn’t progressive and can be reversed if treated properly. This condition is caused by a lack of a B1 vitamin called thiamine often caused by extreme alcohol misuse or excessive vomiting in pregnancy or from bulimia.

Experts are unsure whether developing dementia at an earlier age means that the condition will progress more quickly. However, there are risk factors that can make it more likely that someone will develop Early Onset Dementia, such as leading an unhealthy lifestyle, high levels of cholesterol or high blood pressure.

For anyone under the age of 65 that suspects they may have Younger Onset Dementia, it’s really important to get the right diagnosis as early as possible, as it will enable you to get the right treatments and support.


Home care for dementia

We have a whole host of different home care options if you or a loved one is living with dementia. From visiting care on a weekly basis to full-time live-in care for round-the-clock 24-hour care support, we will work with you to find the right level of care for you and your needs. Contact our friendly customer specialist team today to discuss your requirements.

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Page reviewed by Jayne Vale, Dementia Specialist on May 28, 2020

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