While Alzheimer’s is a permanent and progressive condition, and can only worsen over time, that’s not the case with every dementia diagnosis. In fact, a significant proportion of dementia cases have treatable causes.
With the right help, the person may get better—either for a period of time or for the rest of their life.
Keep in mind that dementia is a general term for the pattern of cognitive changes that also characterize Alzheimer’s. This includes:
- Memory loss
- Loss of language abilities
- Trouble with problem solving
- Cognitive decline
However, these changes aren’t necessarily the result of brain degradation. Depression and bipolar disorder can also change the way the mind works, and can trigger changes that resemble Alzheimer’s.
Similarly, the side effects of medication (or self-medication) may appear to be dementia. Thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies can cause similar symptoms too.
There are other non-Alzheimer’s causes of progressive dementia that are non-reversible, and whose prognosis and treatments differ from Alzheimer’s.
Three of the most common forms of dementia include frontotemporal disorder, Lewy body dementia, and vascular neurocognitive disorder.
It is critical that a doctor rule out these other possibilities before making a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. If you are a caregiver, make sure your loved one has been adequately screened for these disorders described below before you accept an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal disorder (FTD) more commonly affects people under the age of 65.
While cognitive decline is less severe in this form of dementia, people with FTD may lose interest in life, engage in socially inappropriate behavior, and use poor judgment.
Other symptoms of this disorder include loss of empathy, changes in diet, and hyperorality—the practice of placing objects in the mouth.
FTD can affect language as well as behavior. People may have trouble talking and struggle to find and understand words.
FTD accounts for 5% of all dementia cases, with life expectancy of six to eleven years after symptoms appear.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy bodies are the abnormal build-up of protein that occur in the nerve cells of people with Lewy body dementia (LBD) and Parkinson’s disease. LBD includes symptoms of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The condition starts subtly but progresses into serious cognitive and physical decline over the course of five to seven years.
The severity of LBD symptoms can vary from day to day. A person’s ability to focus attention, plan, and remember tasks is particularly affected by the condition, and visual hallucinations frequently occur. After the onset of cognitive symptoms, motor symptoms such as tremor and trouble moving set in.
Quality of life is often more severely impacted than it is for those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Vascular Neurocognitive Disorder
Vascular neurocognitive disorder is the most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s with 16% of the U.S. population over age 80 estimated to have the condition.
The disorder is brought on by cerebrovascular disease, such as stroke. It develops when blood supply to brain tissue is cut off, leading to cognitive decline.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 20-30% of people are diagnosed with the condition within three months following a stroke. Depression, instability, difficulty making decisions, and personality changes frequently appear as part of this vascular neurocognitive disorder.
Characterized by shaking, stiffness, difficulty moving and speaking, and cognitive decline, Parkinson’s is a disease that affects nearly a million people in the U.S. today.
The disorder stems from changes in the brain. Specifically, neurons in the area controlling movement start to malfunction or die.
The dopamine this area used to produce is reduced, which causes changes in speech and movement. Additionally, production of norepinephrine (which helps control nervous system functions) is also affected. Researchers still aren’t clear what causes these cells to die and, as such, available treatments are somewhat limited.
Like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s is a progressive disease related strongly to age, and most of the people it affects are over the age of 50. For those younger than 50, the disease is labeled “early-onset.” Symptoms start out mild and gradually get worse over time.
Changes in sleep, mood, memory, energy, and behavior often accompany the onset and progression of the disease. It affects more men than women by a factor of roughly 1.5.
Signs of Parkinson’s Disease
People with Parkinson’s may exhibit the following signs:
- Shakes and tremors in the arms or legs, head or jaw
- Stiffness and slowness of movement
- Difficulty walking and talking
- Difficulty with fine motor skills, such as grasping objects or writing
- Chronic fatigue
- Irregular blood pressure and sudden blood pressure drops
- Changes in digestion and sleep
- Skin problems
While there is no cure, doctors may prescribe certain surgeries, brain implants, and medications to help relieve some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s. It’s important to see a doctor right away if you see any of the above signs.