Defining Dementias

Dementia is better described as a “syndrome” than a disease

Most of us are familiar with Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative process in the brain that causes changes in a person’s thinking, planning, language and personality. 

Alzheimer’s affects more than 5 million people in the United States, and is now thought to be the most costly disease in the country. 

However, Alzheimer’s is only one of several types of “dementia.” 

The word dementia is a broader term describing diseases that change brain function, that worsen over time, and that impair a person’s ability to live independently

Other forms of dementia include: 

  • Vascular dementia – This type of dementia is caused by impaired blood flow to the brain from stroke, cholesterol build up in blood vessels, or lack of oxygen to the brain. Problems with organization, planning and judgment are usually the first symptoms, with memory impairment coming later in the disease process. 
  • Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) – LBD accounts for both people who develop dementia after having Parkinson’s disease for more than a year and people who first show problems with thinking and later develop symptoms like Parkinson’s. In this type of dementia, problems with memory seem to fluctuate, and sleep disorders and hallucinations are more commonly seen. Although LBD affects more than a million people in the U.S., awareness of its unique features and different treatments are getting more attention and slowly improving. 
  • Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) – FTD is a group of related conditions resulting from the progressive degeneration of the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. These areas of the brain play a significant role in decision-making, behavioral control, emotion and language. This type of dementia strikes younger people more often than other types. 
  • Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – CTE is a progressive degeneration of the brain caused by repetitive brain trauma. It often is talked about in the news, as boxers, football players and military veterans are among the groups of people most commonly affected by this dementia. Research is rapidly increasing our understanding of diagnosis, causes and treatments. 

There is a growing appreciation that dementia represents a syndrome of different causes, as opposed to a singular disease. 

A person may have several types of brain changes that contribute to how their brain functions. For example, a person may have evidence of vascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease – both of which combine to affect their overall brain function. 

If you or a loved one is concerned about your memory, reasoning or thinking abilities, speak to your primary care physician about an evaluation or referral to a memory clinic.

Published on: June 20, 2016