Dementia is a thief. Just ask my life partner/care partner, Brian, who has Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. It’s an armed robber that steals memories, mostly in reverse chronological order, so what happened weeks, days, hours or even seconds ago can be a complete mystery. Some folks regress to the point they’re “mentally present” in previous decades, often mistaking younger relatives like grandchildren for their own children or brothers and sisters.
Most who don’t experience it tend to equate Alzheimer’s and dementia only to losing memories. There are, however, a host of other mild-to-severe symptoms that affect daily life including:
- Anger and mood swings
- Aphasia (inability to communicate)
- Organization and planning problems
- Poor visual and spatial recognition
From communication difficulties to a general fogginess of the mind to something Brian calls “The Nothingness,” when brain activity just stops. I’ve seen the good, bad and ugly of Brian’s numerous diagnoses. As a life-care planner and patient advocate, that love and experience frames my perspective daily. We always say, “Knowing one person with dementia is … well, knowing one person with dementia.” There are more types of dementia than we could possibly recap here.
Common Types of Dementia and their Signs
Different types of dementia are different types of dementia, and there are more than 400 in total. They affect all people differently — even those with the same diagnosis. But they do have their traditional calling cards. I break some of the most common down here.
We’ll start with the most famous — and often most misdiagnosed. Why? Because Alzheimer’s disease can only be definitively diagnosed in an autopsy after death. Doctors use a variety of brain scans and other medical tests to arrive at Alzheimer’s as the likely cause of cognitive decline and memory loss. There are specific biomarkers that align with the various mental impairments experienced daily.
This can happen to people who’ve experienced strokes and various other cardiovascular conditions. Makes sense, right? Brain tissue needs blood to survive and thrive.
Lesser vascular dementia symptoms could be signs of vascular cognitive impairment, in which changes in language comprehension/retention, reasoning and memory are noticeable but progress slowly with time.
Lewy Body Dementia
Lewy Body Dementia stems from brain abnormalities that could be attributed to some other conditions like Parkinson’s disease. See the confusion? It’s considered the third-most common type of dementia at up to 10 percent of documented cases.
There’s a physical component, too. In addition to changes in thinking and reasoning, a person may experience movement issues such as imbalance, shuffling or slow gait, and shakiness. Sleep disturbances and hallucinations are also common. Memory loss happens with Lewy Body dementia, but it tends to be less severe than other types of dementia.
This type of dementia can affect behavior and comprehension in all stages of life, although the most common associated with personality typically begins in a person’s 50s or 60s. Frontotemporal dementia causes nerve-cell degeneration in the frontal lobe, which is often the last to develop in adulthood, governing what some would call mature decision-making. So a person with this diagnosis may experience difficulties with judgment and foresight.
Others with Frontotemporal dementia can have progressive aphasia, in which communication skills like speaking, writing and verbal understanding can go away and return (or not return) in the blink of an eye.
Mixed dementia can stem from multiple conditions including those associated with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. Doctors believe there may be millions of undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because it’s so tough to pin down. The symptoms of memory decline and cognitive ability often mirror Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, but they may not be as pronounced or progress at different rates.
The combination of two or more types of dementia makes this diagnosis particularly confounding. Some memory and cognitive regressions and other symptoms may overlap or present more prominently than others.
This genetic disease causes devastating brain degeneration relatively early in life, affecting both mental and physical abilities. However rare, it typically hits around a person’s 30s or 40s. Huntington’s disease impairs movement and thinking ability and often results in a variety of psychiatric disorders.
You may see a person with this diagnosis having involuntary muscle spasms and uncontrolled eye movements. Cognitively, the person may struggle with organizing and focusing on daily activities. They may lack physical and mental awareness.
Build a Life Care Plan for Different Types of Dementia
If you have a diagnosis of dementia, whatever it might be, you have to prepare for what’s ahead. Trust me, we know. As the disease progresses, it’s often impossible to know from one day to the next which version of your loved one you’re going to get that day. That’s common with all types of dementia.
And that’s OK. You can build a life-care plan and a care-partner team to guide your needs (and theirs) for years to come. #WeAreDementiaStrong. If you need help, Caregiver Support and Resources, LLC has over 25 years of experience with all aspects of life-care planning including dementia care. We are happy to provide referrals and guide the process in a caring and compassionate way.