Understanding Dementia

Dementia is a scary word that people don’t always understand. It is well known that dementia includes memory loss, but it can also include things like loss of reasoning or judgement, difficulty using language, and challenges in communicating effectively. Dementia is different from normal changes that come with the aging process. It doesn’t happen to everyone and it doesn’t happen only to older people. 

What’s the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia?

The word Dementia describes a set of symptoms: changes in memory, language, communication, focus, and reasoning. There are many types of diseases or conditions in the brain that cause these symptoms, and Alzheimer’s disease is one of those diseases. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are different because Alzheimer’s disease causes changes in the brain, and we call those changes “dementia.” Typical symptoms include difficulty with recent memory, changes in speech and communication, disorientation, and poor judgement. 

What are the other causes of dementia?

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, making up between 60-80% of dementia cases. Alzheimer’s disease is related to abnormal protein strands – plaques and tangles – and nerve damage in the brain.

Vascular dementia explains about 10% of dementia cases. Vascular dementia is related to blood vessel damage that causes strokes or bleeding in the brain. Symptoms are similar to that of Alzheimer’s disease, but difficulty making decisions or impaired judgement is often the first apparent symptom instead of memory loss.

Dementia with Lewy bodies

Dementia with Lewy bodies is when a certain type of protein forms clumps in the brain.  These clumps can occur on their own, causing dementia, or can occur alongside other brain changes like Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia. People with Dementia with Lewy bodies also experience symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but are more likely to have additional symptoms like hallucinations and problems with movement.

Mixed dementia

Mixed dementia means that more than one cause of dementia is present in the brain at the same time. More is being learned about mixed dementia, but some evidence shows it’s relatively common in people with dementia.

Reversible dementias

Because dementia is a set of symptoms, not a disease itself, some conditions that cause dementia are can actually be treated and possibly even cured. Some treatable causes of dementia include depression, medication interactions or side effects, substance abuse, sleep conditions, infections (including urinary tract infection), and more. This is one reason it is important to see a health care provider to determine the nature and cause of dementia, in case it is caused by something that can be controlled or cured.

Other types of dementia

There are many other conditions that can cause dementia, which is just one more reason why getting an assessment and diagnosis is so important. Some of these include Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, normal pressure hydrocephalus, Huntington’s disease, and many more. Each of these conditions or diseases affect the brain in unique ways, producing a variety of symptoms that are also unique, but all categorized as dementia. 

Sources: Alzheimer’s Association