Tips on types of dementia
Oftentimes people use the word “Alzheimer’s” when they really mean “dementia.” While Alzheimer’s is one type of dementia, it is not the only type. There are many types of dementia, and while there are sources that will say there are anywhere from 200 to 400 types of dementia, it is commonly understood among the medical community to be far fewer than that – around 7 to 13 types.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. Others are:
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease (“Mad Cow”)
Normal pressure hydrocephalus
Posterior cortical atrophy
Some of the types of dementia are very rare, such as that associated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease, affecting only 1 in a million people annually worldwide.
Others are associated with genetic diseases, and although they are at higher risk for dementia, not everyone with these diseases will develop it. Those with Down Syndrome, for example, have a significantly increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia or a type of dementia that is very similar to it.
Vascular dementia is more often seen as part of mixed dementia rather than by itself. Experts believe that while vascular dementia is recognized as common, it remains largely underdiagnosed.
Mixed dementia features two, if not all three, Alzheimer’s, vascular, and Lewy Body dementia types.
Most types of dementia cannot be conclusively diagnosed with a single test. Although tests certainly help make the determination, most dementias are diagnosed based on a physician’s best clinical judgment. A conclusive diagnosis is only possible post-mortem (after death).
Does the type of dementia matter?
Dementia cannot be reversed or cured, and there is conflicting research regarding whether it can be prevented from developing, or slowed down once it develops. The type of dementia can impact treatment decisions, of course, though most dementias are medically treated very similarly.
Knowing the type of dementia is more useful for understanding and anticipating the associated symptoms versus widely varying treatment plans for each type.
Knowing what dementia symptoms to expect helps you prepare for how you will talk to your loved one, approach your loved one, and work with your loved one. It can also help you plan future care.
For example, Alzheimer’s and mixed dementia are not typically marked by a gradual decline (like a rolling hill) but rather steep drops and plateaus (like the rock face of a mountain). In other words, your loved one may function at a reasonably high level for an extended period and then seemingly, overnight even, decline significantly. They may then function at that level for a while before declining again, and so forth. It is important to be prepared for this.
Another example is Korsakoff syndrome, which is marked by an inability to learn new information. You and your loved one may have a full and coherent conversation, which your loved one may promptly forget. This can be frustrating for you, especially if the conversation was an important one that involved agreements or decisions about future planning, financial matters, or consent for things.
A final example is Lewy Body type dementia, which is commonly accepted to be the most behaviorally unpredictable dementia type, even potentially featuring hostile and violent behavior in the advanced stage. You may be surprised to know that because of this, many nursing homes and assisted living facilities will not accept persons with Lewy Body dementia. This becomes an important factor in future planning, should your loved one need more care than can be provided at home.
Don’t try to diagnose your loved one’s thinking or memory issues yourself. Talk to your loved one’s provider about their symptoms and their risk for dementia, discuss your concerns regarding the behaviors you’re seeing in your loved one, and ask lots of questions about how the provider arrived at the type of dementia (if diagnosed).
It’s also important that the information you’re getting online about your loved one’s dementia comes from quality, reputable, evidence-validated resources. The Alzheimer’s Association is a great place to start.