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A Brief Overview of Dementia

The term "dementia" is thrown around a lot in discussions of elderly individuals, but what exactly does it mean? Dementia is a general term for memory loss that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. This general term encompasses many different diseases, of which Alzheimer's is only the most common. Following is a brief summary of the different types of dementia:

  • Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 50 to 70 percent of all cases of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Alzheimer's is a partially hereditary disease that causes a loss of brain cells. It gets progressively worse over time and is fatal. There is no cure, but there are medications that can treat the symptoms and slow its progress.
  • Vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia and is caused by poor circulation to the brain. It may occur after a major stroke or a series of minor strokes. The disease sometimes progresses in recognized steps. The symptoms of vascular dementia vary depending on which area of the brain is affected, but they can include memory loss, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and reduced ability to carry out daily activities. While there is no cure, treatment of high blood pressure and good diabetic control can slow the progress. In addition, drugs that are used to treat Alzheimer's disease can also be used to treat vascular dementia. Some individuals have both Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. This is called mixed dementia, and may have a greater impact on the brain than one form of dementia by itself.
  • Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's disease starts off causing physical symptoms, such as tremors, stiffness, difficulty walking, and speech problems. Dementia may develop late in the disease but not everyone with Parkinson's disease experiences dementia. There are no drugs to treat dementia caused by Parkinson's, but several medications can treat the physical symptoms of Parkinson's disease.
  • Lewy body dementia. Lewy body dementia is caused by deposits of protein on the brain cells. It has characteristics of both Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, such as memory loss and slowed movement, but it can also cause visual hallucinations and delusions. There is no cure, but some drugs used to treat Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease may help with some of the symptoms.
  • Frontotemporal dementia. Frontotemporal dementia affects the front and side lobes of the brain and causes personality and behavior changes. The symptoms vary depending on which areas of the brain are affected but can include inappropriate actions, apathy, excessive happiness and excitement, lack of judgment, and difficulty in using and understanding language. There is no treatment or way to slow the progress of frontotemporal dementia.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Caused by a protein in the brain that takes on an abnormal shape, CJD is a rare disease that progresses quickly. A variant of CJD can be caused by eating cattle afflicted with "mad cow" disease. The symptoms of CJD include memory impairment, depression, and problems with movement. CJD is fatal and death can occur within a year of contracting the disease. There is no effective treatment.
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH). NPH is a rare disease that occurs when fluid builds up in the brain. It causes mental decline as well as loss of bladder control and difficulty walking. It can be treated by surgically by inserting a tube (called a shunt) into the brain to drain the fluid.
  • Huntington's disease. Huntington's disease is an inherited brain disorder that is fatal. It starts with physical symptoms, such as jerky movements and problems with balance, and as it progresses can lead to trouble with memory and concentration. There are no treatments to stop or slow the disease, but some of the symptoms can be controlled by medication.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder often caused by alcoholism. It leads to confusion, gaps in memory, and making up information, among other things. If caught early enough, it can be treated and the damage can be reversed.

For more information on dementia from the Alzheimer's Association, click here.

For a Gilbert Guide article on "10 Types of Dementia That Aren't Alzheimer's—& How They're Diagnosed,"click here.