All of us forget things from time to time, and this is perfectly normal. Many elderly people worry that misplacing items such as keys, or spectacles, could be early signs of dementia, but these are perfectly normal occurrences and are often no cause for alarm.
However, when these things begin to happen more regularly, and are accompanied by problems with mobility, speech, and learning, it could be time to see a doctor to rule out something more serious.
Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms that impact how we think, feel, and remember. There are five main types of dementia that present similar symptoms which become progressively worse over time, making it difficult to diagnose. in the early stages.
The type of condition that you or a loved one is diagnosed with is likely to affect the speed with which the disease progresses, and they type of dementia care that they’ll require. However, other factors also come into play, such as overall health and medical conditions, healthy diet, activity levels, and the amounts of alcohol someone has drunk over the years.
This means it’d unlikely that two or more people will experience the same symptoms of dementia, or follow the same progression of the disease. However that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to raise the alarm and get help if something doesn’t seem right. In this guide we’ll introduce you to the most common types of dementia, and the signs and symptoms to look out for.
What are the 5 most common types of dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the well-known forms of dementia, and for good reason. According to Dementia UK, it accounts for up to 60% of dementia diagnoses in the UK. The onset is usually very slow, making it difficult to determine if it’s present, at least in the early stages.
With Alzheimer’s, changes in the brain can start years before the first symptoms appear. These changes include the build up of Amyloid plaques and tau tangles – which are toxic proteins that prevent the brain’s nerve cells from functioning properly. Eventually, these brain cells begin to die and areas of the brain shrink.
Alzheimer’s disease begins in the part of the brain that helps us to form new memories and recall old ones, which is why people living with early stage Alzheimer’s usually experience:
- Difficulties in remembering names or recalling recent events
- Forgetfulness, such as asking the same question repeatedly, or struggling to find the right words to use
- Difficulties in managing or planning daily life, such as coping with financial transactions, or keeping a diary
If you notice that a loved one is also experiencing bouts of confusion, or changes in their mood or personality, such as depression, for example, then it could be helpful to arrange for medical checks. They may be sent to a Memory Clinic where they’ll complete some diagnostic tests with a dementia specialist.
The sooner the condition is diagnosed, the sooner some form of treatment can commence to slow the progression of the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI)?
Slight cognitive decline is a natural part of ageing – many of us will forget things like appointments from time to time, or the right word during a conversation, or find it tricky to make certain decisions. However, if these things start to happen more often, and aren’t accompanied by any other dementia symptoms, it could be a sign of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), rather than dementia.
People with MCI are usually able to stay living completely independently despite experiencing dementia-like symptoms. MCI can often be kept under control with lifestyle changes such as sticking to a daily routine, getting enough sleep, and eating well.
However, each year, around 1 in 10 people with MCI do develop dementia, so it’s important to raise any changes in symptoms with a doctor as soon as you notice them.
Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia seen in the UK, accounting for 17% of people with dementia.
Vascular dementia is usually the result of a previous condition that’s damaged the brain’s blood vessels and reduced the flow of blood and oxygen getting to the brain – such as a stroke or blood clot. This harms and eventually kills cells within the brain.
Single-infarct and multi-infarct dementia are two types of vascular dementia caused by a series of small strokes – sometimes so small that they happen with no symptoms, or temporary symptoms lasting just a few minutes at a time. If these strokes interrupt blood flow for more than a few minutes they can kill small areas of brain tissue – which is called an as infarct.
Many of the symptoms of vascular dementia are similar to Alzheimer’s, such as disorientation, memory loss and difficulty communicating, but other symptoms will also be present, depending on the area of the brain that is affected. Common warning signs include:
- Trouble processing new information
- Difficulties with reasoning and paying attention
- Apathy, or becoming more emotional than usual
- Changes to mobility, such as how a person walks
- Frequent bladder problems
Because of the way it attacks the brain, those living with the form of dementia will almost always have areas of damage that can be visible with an MRI scan, and therefore diagnosis can be a little easier than with other dementias.
The onset tends to be slow, however the speed with which vascular dementia progresses over tome varies person to person, but symptoms will worsen until they need quality care and support with some day to day tasks.
Lewy body dementia
Dementia with lewy bodies, also known as DLB, is responsible for many of the most common dementia symptoms.
While scientists are still learning about this form of dementia, they do know that it’s associated with clumps of protein – called Lewy bodies that accumulate in the brain.
It’s believed that these Lewy bodies can stop the chemicals needed to send messages between brain cells from being produced. Without the ability to share information among cells, certain tasks such as learning, movement, and sleep become difficult.
Common signs of lewy-body dementia include:
- Problems with spatial awareness
- Aggressive behaviour and emotional outbursts
- Memory loss, particularly issues with short-term memory in the early stages
- Symptoms similar to those associated with Parkinson’s disease, such as tremors, muscle stiffness and slower movements than usual.
- Sleep disturbances and an inability to maintain a healthy sleep pattern
- Visual hallucinations – seeing things that aren’t there, or mistakenly identifying things
Another less common symptom is a tendency to faint, which can increase the likelihood of falls and accidents at home. DLB usually progresses slowly, but eventually, those living with the late stages will require help and assistance with daily activities such as dressing, eating and bathing.
Commonly known as FTD, frontotemporal dementia causes different symptoms, depending on the particular area of the brain that’s damaged. Some people will experience problems relating to social behaviour if the frontal lobe is affected, if the temporal lobes are affected it’ll be more difficult to process language or facts.
Symptoms usually start earlier than with other common dementias, and while the cause is still unknown, it’s though that tiny protein structures called Pick bodies could play a part.
Signs to look out for include:
- Changes in personality, such as an inability to behave appropriately
- Language troubles, such as speaking slowly, making the wrong sounds, or using words in the wrong order
- A loss of interest in personal hygiene
- Muscle spasms or twitches
- Difficulties with swallowing
As with all types of dementia, symptoms gradually worsen over time, meaning that those diagnosed with fronto-temporal demential are likely to need help with basic tasks eventually.
It’s possible for someone living with dementia to have two or more types present at the same time – for example, a person may have vascular dementia following a stroke, but have Lewy bodies present in their brain too. When this happens, it’s called mixed dementia.
There are a lot of different types of dementia beyond these five most common – meaning the combination possibilities are vast. This can manifest as a unique cluster of symptoms and make it difficult to diagnose beyond the broad term of ‘dementia’.
Rarer types of dementia
There’s actually hundreds of different forms of dementia – while the 5 named above are the most common, there are a number of rarer types you may have heard of too.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) – This is one of the rarest forms of dementia. While it presents a lot of them same symptoms as common forms, it progresses far quicker, usually reaching the final stage within a year of diagnosis.
Huntingdon’s disease – This is a genetic condition that can cause dementia – typically leading to symptoms when people are in their 30s and 40s. The condition damages nerve cells in the brain which can cause symptoms such as the inability to focus, trouble with speech and language skills, difficulties swallowing, and tremors and muscle spasms.
Normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) – This is another condition that can cause dementia symptoms like poor balance, forgetfulness and erratic mood. It happens when too much fluid builds up in the brain’s ventricles – putting pressure on the brain and damaging nearby brain tissue. Fluid build up can be caused by a traumatic brain injury, infection, brain disorders, and brain tumors.
What type of dementia is hereditary?
Having a close family member with dementia doesn’t mean you’re destined to be diagnosed in later life too. However, genetics can be a risk factor for dementia in some very rare cases.
Huntingdon’s disease, and an extremely rare form of Alzheimer’s called Familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD) can be passed on. With both conditions, if a parent has the gene that causes it, each child in their family has a 50% chance of inheriting it. However cases of both these types represent a tiny portion of dementia cases in the UK.
In term of more common types, Fronto-temporal has been found to be passed on from parent to child. It’s also believed that around 40 percent of people with FTD have at least one family member with some form of dementia. However, while this is referred to as a common dementia, when compared to Alzheimer’s there are very few cases.
Why it’s important to get a diagnosis
According to Dementia UK, it can take an average of just over 2 years to confirm a diagnosis of dementia, so acting on the earliest signs while scary, is really important. This means a treatment plan can be started quicker, which may slow the progression of the condition.
An accurate diagnosis will be able to rule out or treat any conditions that present similar symptoms too, such as MCI, and some thyroid, heart and vision problems.
Discover more of our articles on dementia
From dealing with a diagnosis and understanding the implications to getting advice on how to live well with the condition, our extensive resources will help guide you through what can be a tough and emotional moment.