The Many Forms of Dementia

-Diagnosis is key to understanding dementia symptoms, treatment, support

by Pam Leonard, LBSW, CDP

When a loved one begins to show signs of confusion, memory loss or difficulty maintaining a day-to-day routine, it’s important to make sure they see a doctor as soon as possible. These symptoms may be caused by depression, drug side effects, urinary tract infections, hormonal or endocrine imbalances, vitamin deficiencies or alcohol abuse. When these underlying causes are effectively treated, symptoms often will completely disappear.

However, when treatable medical issues have been ruled out, your loved one may need to see a neurologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating individuals with dementia. “Dementia” is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms that occur when the brain is affected by disease. Much progress has been made in recent years in understanding and diagnosing the various forms of dementia. When a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, it’s important to note what type of dementia is diagnosed.  

Most people are familiar with Alzheimer’s disease, the most widespread form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease affects memory first and then progresses to other cognitive abilities such as speech, ability to reason and movement. 

The second most common form of dementia is vascular dementia. This is caused by an interruption of blood flow to the brain, often as result of stroke, heart disease or diabetes. The most common type of vascular dementia, multi-infarct dementia, occurs when the cortex of the brain is damaged by serial strokes. People with this diagnosis are likely to have better insight into the disease while they are in the early stages, and their personality may remain relatively intact longer than someone with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Lewy body dementia shares symptoms with both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. It is caused by plaque build-up on nerve cells in the brain stem. It can cause muscle rigidity, behavioral issues, cognitive loss, hallucinations and tremors.

Frontotemporal dementia impacts the front and side portions of the brain. It can impair speech and memory, cause emotional and behavioral problems and make walking difficult. It often causes a loss of inhibition that can be difficult for family caregivers to control and for others to understand. When functioning well, the frontal lobes help manage our emotional responses and stop us from shouting or having emotional outbursts at inappropriate times. For example, the frontal lobes inhibit us from shouting at a funeral or singing in the middle of a meeting. Because this type of dementia does not, at first, affect short-term memory, it can be difficult to recognize as dementia. Friends and loved ones may instead think that someone is having psychiatric problems.    

Other causes of dementia include Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. Finally, it is possible for an individual to suffer from mixed dementia, or two types of dementia at once. Many researchers believe this is more common than once thought.

As you can see, “dementia” is not a single disorder. A careful diagnosis can help us understand how a friend or loved one’s brain is being affected, why they are showing specific symptoms and behaviors and how we can best support them.   

If someone you love has been diagnosed with dementia, CJFS is here to help. In addition to our CARES respite program for people in early to mid-stages of the disease, we have a monthly Caregiver Support Group on the 3rd Thursday of the month at 1 pm at the Friedman Center for Jewish Life. We also provide individual and family counseling to help families cope with the impact of the disease. Contact Pam for more information at pam@cjfsbham.org.