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Different Types of Dementia, and How to Prevent Them

Different Types of Dementia, and How to Prevent Them

If you have ever had a loved one experience a form of dementia, then you understand the special challenges of the condition. Unlike other chronic medical conditions that affect the heart, kidneys, or other organ systems, dementia affects the brain. This means that dementia can affect a person’s sense of self and their relationships with everyone around them. One of the most recent examples of dementia’s toll occurred with the family of actor Bruce Willis’s revelation that he is suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD). This form of dementia is not as common as other forms, but it is more commonly diagnosed in people younger than age 60.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we believe that, beyond comprehensive medical care, information is the most empowering resource we can provide to our patients and their families. Knowing about the different types of dementia and how to prevent them can help you manage this condition better if it affects you or someone you love.

What is dementia?

The term dementia is a broad category that describes many different kinds of disorders. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dementia can be defined as “an impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interfere with doing everyday activities.” Many people believe that dementia is a normal part of aging (this is illustrated by the common usage of the description of a “senior moment”). However, having difficulties with thinking and remembering that affects how you live your life is not a normal part of aging. Some normal age-related changes may include forgetting the name of a word but remembering it later or sometimes forgetting where you put a common item, like your wallet. However, these lapses are not considered true dementia.

How common is dementia?

Dementia is becoming more common worldwide, with experts noting that more than 55 million people live with dementia today and a predicted tripling by 2050.

What are the different types of dementia?

Dementia occurs in many forms. You are probably familiar with the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s dementia. However, many other types of dementia can cause similar or overlapping symptoms. Some of these types of dementia are progressive, meaning they will generally worsen as time progresses. However, some types are reversible.

Alzheimer’s dementia

Alzheimer’s dementia is by far the most common cause of dementia. Most people develop Alzheimer’s in their later decades; in fact, one in three people over age 85 have Alzheimer’s dementia. However, the disease can occur in earlier decades, as well. This form of dementia typically starts with mild cognitive problems. Then it progresses to a more severe decline over a decade. Almost all parts of brain function are eventually affected, ranging from memory to judgment to reasoning to behavior to motor function. People with Alzheimer’s typically have bundles or twisted proteins in their neurons known as “neurofibrillary tangles,” as well as abnormal clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid. However, researchers are not sure how these affect the brain or why they develop.

Frontotemporal dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is most commonly discovered in younger people, most often diagnosed between 45 and 65. In this type of dementia, the cells in specific brain areas become damaged, leading to a loss of function. The areas of the brain that are impacted include the frontal lobe and/or the temporal lobe, which are responsible for your personality, behavior, and ability to understand or create language. In FTD, behavioral changes are often the first sign of the disease. There are many causes for the changes seen in these specific brain areas, including particular tau and TDP-43 proteins that build up in these areas. This type of dementia can run in families.

Lewy body dementia

This type of dementia can cause problems with thinking, making decisions, staying focused, and getting quality sleep. Some people may also have hallucinations. In this type of dementia, a protein called a “Lewy body” is prominent within the brain. Scientists are unsure how these abnormal proteins cause specific changes. Lewy bodies have also been associated with other types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s dementia and Parkinson’s dementia. There is no current known cause or risk factor involved with Lewy body dementia. The condition is also not thought to be hereditary or genetic.

Vascular dementia

This type of dementia can occur after a person has a stroke. During a stroke, certain parts of the brain experience a disruption in their blood flow, which means that brain cells don’t get the oxygen and nutrients they need from the blood. Even if the blood flow is eventually returned to that area of the brain, there can be permanent damage to those cells. The symptoms of vascular dementia will vary depending on what part of the brain was affected. If a major blood vessel was blocked, a person may have a more severe form of dementia, with problems with thinking skills. If a person has had several “mini” strokes, this may also cause a more profound type of dementia. It is possible for a person with vascular dementia to also have some signs of Alzheimer’s dementia or other forms of dementia. In this case, they have “mixed dementia.”

Huntington’s disease dementia

This form of dementia is caused by a genetic condition known as Huntington’s disease, which is passed down through families. This is a progressive brain disease, and anyone who has inherited the gene from a parent will go on to develop the condition because it is a dominant gene. In this type of dementia, changes in the brain’s huntingtin protein can cause severe changes in reasoning, personality, and mood. Other symptoms of Huntington’s disease include uncontrollable movements of the arms and legs, and these symptoms tend to develop between the third and fifth decade.

Parkinson’s disease dementia

This type of dementia tends to occur in people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease for at least one year. In Parkinson’s dementia, people may experience a decrease in their thinking and reasoning skills. They may have difficulties with their memory, focus, ability to make good judgments, and ability to complete tasks involving many steps. These brain changes are thought to occur because there is a buildup of a specific protein within the brain, known as Lewy bodies. People with Parkinson’s dementia are also thought to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s, meaning they have “mixed dementia.” Not everyone who has Parkinson’s disease will go on to develop Parkinson’s dementia; however, the chances of developing dementia increase the longer you live with Parkinson’s disease.

Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH)

In this form of dementia, a person has an excess cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) within their brain. This excess fluid creates larger spaces within the brain ("enlarged ventricles"), which can affect brain function. A classic triad of symptoms in NPH includes problems thinking, walking, and losing bladder control. Sometimes NPH is caused by a head injury, inflammation, infection, or a brain tumor, but this is not common. Usually, the cause is unknown, and experts are not sure why the excess fluid develops in the brain of most people with NPH. This form of dementia can often be reversed with treatment. By taking away the excess fluid from the brain (through a surgical shunt), some people can return to their former brain function.

Korsakoff syndrome

This type of dementia affects your memory. It is typically caused by a deficiency of Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine. Researchers believe that thiamine has an important job in carrying information within the brain and also in coding and retrieving memories, which is why a deficiency in this vitamin can cause memory loss. Korsakoff syndrome is typically seen in people who have struggled with alcohol abuse. Still, it can also be caused by chronic immunosuppression, chronic infection, or poor nutrition. Sometimes, memory issues can be improved once the vitamin deficiency is corrected.

How to prevent dementia?

One of the largest challenges in dementia has been learning how to prevent dementia in the first place. Some types of dementia are more prone to occur because of genetics—such as Huntington’s dementia. These forms are more challenging to prevent. However, many types of dementia, including the most common form, Alzheimer’s disease, may be partially preventable using the following healthy lifestyle measures.

  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meat.
  • Avoiding highly processed foods and refined sugar
  • Avoiding or limiting alcohol intake
  • Getting consistent and regular sleep
  • Using stress reduction practices, such as meditation
  • Staying social and engaged in the community
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Staying physically active, with 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly
  • Avoiding long periods of sedentary behavior
  • Not smoking cigarettes
  • Avoiding head trauma

Many of these recommended lifestyle measures can also help you prevent other forms of chronic illness.

How to partner with Lompoc Health for dementia management

Having firsthand experience with a loved one experiencing dementia can be a challenging experience. It can also be a highly challenging experience to recognize the early signs of dementia in yourself. At Lompoc Health, our skilled family medicine and internal medicine providers can counsel you on all aspects of dementia, from diagnosis to management to managing the caregiving aspects of a loved one with dementia. To learn more or to book an appointment, contact us today.