Many people are not aware that dementia is a symptom, not a disease. Some of the hallmarks of dementia are memory loss, difficulty with communication, loss of reasoning skills, and mood swings. However, saying a person has dementia simply means that they have the symptoms of dementia, it does not tell us why – what disease is causing the symptoms – just as saying a person is blind tells us they are blind, but does not tell us what caused the blindness.
There are a multitude of reasons a person may develop symptoms of dementia. It could even be a reversible dementia caused by things like depression, diabetes, or a drug interaction. In these cases, once the reason the dementia developed is addressed, the dementia symptoms go away. However, there are many other reasons dementia develops that are irreversible, diseases that are progressive and, as of now, untreatable. The following are the most common diseases that cause symptoms of dementia.
Alzheimer’s Disease: According to the Alzheimer’s Association, eighty percent of those who seek medical advice due to symptoms of dementia will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Because Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, people often use the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s” interchangeably. However, Alzheimer’s disease is a specific form of dementia in which plaques and tangles form in the brain causing cell death. The process is predictable enough as it moves through the brain, that we can talk about the “stages” of the disease from early memory loss, right through to the loss of all mental and physical ability. For more information on Alzheimer’s disease visit: www.alz.org
Vascular Dementia: This form of dementia is caused by a loss of oxygen to the cells of the brain. Commonly referred to as a stroke, these events can be large or small, and can happen once or many times. The symptoms that occur depend on the part of the brain that’s been damaged. The dementia symptoms related to a vascular event may not have as much to do with memory loss as they do with lack of reasoning and inhibition. For more information related to Vascular Dementia visit: www.stroke.org
Lewy Body Dementia: This type of dementia is caused when an abnormal amount of a specific protein builds-up in the nerve cell of the brain and causes it to die. As the cells die, a person may exhibit hallucinations and mental confusion. Their physical body may be affected more quickly than other forms of dementia too, as they exhibit Parkinsonian type rigidity and tremors. For more information about Lewy Body dementia visit: www.lbda.org
Frontotemporal Dementia: The frontal and anterior temporal lobes, which control reasoning, personality, movement, speech, social graces, language, and some aspects of memory are affected by this type of dementia. These areas of the brain atrophy, causing marked changes in a person’s personality and behavior. Most often this develops in people over the age of 40, but before the age of 65. It may be mistaken for mental illness or eccentricity because the person presents with signs of dementia, yet upon inspection there is an absence of abnormal protein, or plaques and tangles. For more information about Frontotemporal Dementia visit: www.theaftd.org
There are many other reasons a person may exhibit symptoms of dementia; these are only the most common. It is beneficial to get a diagnosis, if possible. While brain cells that are damaged cannot regenerate, depending on why they were damaged, there may be some benefit to lifestyle changes, a medication that may slow down the progression, or an avoidance of medications that could make the problem worse.