What is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term that refers to a loss of cognitive function due to symptoms that affect memory, thinking, reasoning, personality, mood and behavior. Dementia is characterized by a progressive decline in these areas that is significant enough to impact daily life and primarily affects older adults.
What Causes Dementia?
Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It develops when areas of the brain that affect learning, memory, decision-making and language are altered as a result of various infections or diseases. While dementia isn’t considered a specific disease, several diseases can cause dementia.
Types of Dementia and Their Causes
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. However, there are several other dementia types. Individualized treatment will be tailored based on your dementia type:
- Alzheimer’s disease: The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that accounts for 50-70% of all dementia cases, with the majority of people being diagnosed at 75 years of age and older. Alzheimer’s develops when abnormal deposits of proteins form hard plaques and tangles throughout the brain, causing neurons to die and damage the brain, triggering parts of it to shrink. Researchers believe damage begins years before symptoms appear.
- Vascular dementia: As the second most common cause of dementia and accounting for 5-10% of dementia cases, vascular dementia is caused by vascular changes in the brain, such as a stroke or an injury to small vessels carrying blood to the brain. Those with vascular dementia experience a decline in thinking skills. Some people diagnosed with vascular dementia may also show changes in the brain’s white matter, which “connects the wires” of the brain and relays messages between regions.
- Lewy body dementia: Another common cause of dementia and accounting for 5-10% of dementia cases, Lewy body dementia affects areas of the brain responsible for thinking and reasoning, movement, behavior and mood. Lewy body dementia is generally caused by abnormal deposits of the alpha-synuclein protein in the brain. Lewy bodies are also found in other brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia.
- Frontotemporal dementia: Also known as frontotemporal degeneration, this disorder causes nerve cell damage in the areas of the brain responsible for behavior, personality, speaking and understanding language. Frontotemporal dementia is rare and generally develops in people younger than 60.
- Mixed dementia: This type of dementia is believed to be connected to a combination of changes in the brain, such as a person having symptoms that are consistent with both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. The symptoms associated with mixed dementia vary and depend on the types of brain changes and the regions of the brain that are affected.
- Huntington’s disease: This progressive, genetic brain disorder causes changes in the central region of the brain that impacts movement, thinking, reasoning and mood. Those with the disease will generally exhibit symptoms between the ages of 30 and 50, but symptoms may appear as early as two years old.
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus: Generally affecting people aged 60-70, normal pressure hydrocephalus is mainly caused by fluid buildup in the brain’s ventricles, the cavities within the brain that produce and store cerebrospinal fluid. It is sometimes caused by other brain disorders, such as a tumor, head injury, hemorrhage, infection or inflammation. The symptoms of normal pressure hydrocephalus are similar to Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and are often overlooked or misdiagnosed. Those affected will experience difficulty walking, memory problems, apathy, thinking and reasoning problems and loss of bladder control. Unlike most dementias, normal pressure hydrocephalus may be reversed with treatment.
- Korsakoff syndrome: Associated with severe thiamine (vitamin B-1) deficiency, Korsakoff syndrome is primarily caused by alcohol abuse. It is also common in people whose bodies do not absorb food properly, who have a chronic illness or had bariatric surgery. Those with Korsakoff syndrome experience long- and short-term memory loss and have difficulty learning new information. Korsakoff syndrome often follows an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, which can cause life-threatening brain disruption, confusion, difficulty walking, lack of coordination and abnormal, involuntary eye movements. When the memory loss associated with Korsakoff syndrome happens frequently after an episode of Wernicke encephalopathy, this chronic disorder is sometimes referred to as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: This rare type of dementia disease progresses quickly and occurs when prion protein folds into an abnormal three-dimensional shape, slowly triggering prion protein in the brain to fold into the same shape. Those diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease experience behavioral changes, including depression, mood swings, apathy, disorientation, confusion, problems with thinking and reasoning, vision problems and difficulty walking.
- Posterior cortical atrophy: This rare type of dementia causes damage and deterioration to the posterior cortex of the brain, the area responsible for processing new information. Symptoms associated with posterior cortical atrophy include difficulty with using tools or common objects and visual tasks, such as reading a line of text, judging distances, differentiating moving objects from stationary objects, an inability to perceive more than one object at once, disorientation and sometimes hallucinations.
Can Dementia Be Cured?
Except in very few cases, there are no treatments that stop dementia caused by Alzheimer’s or related dementias at this time. There are approved treatments that can help slow disease progression, improve memory and help manage behavioral problems and other symptoms. Patients also have access to the most innovative therapies through clinical research trials. This includes ethically-sound studies working to better diagnose, treat and even prevent the disease. Thanks to the participation from our Banner Research volunteers, we’ve been able to help bring major breakthroughs to the market.
If you have concerns about certain symptoms you or a loved one may be experiencing, make an appointment with your doctor today.