Common Causes of Dementia
Alzheimer's disease is the best-known cause of dementia — but there are a slew of other causes, too. Do you know what they are?
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Dementia is really a big umbrella term that covers a number of different conditions that cause dementia symptoms. Of these, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and perhaps best known — but it’s not the only one.
“There are many different types of dementia,” says Ross Andel, PhD, associate professor at the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “The most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. All types of dementia are characterized by abnormal neurodegeneration, that is, brain cells dying off in high numbers daily. In most cases, this leads to cognitive and behavioral deficits or, in Parkinson’s disease, to deficits in motor skills.”
One of the ways in which types of dementia are categorized is by where the damage to these cells is occurring in the brain.
Broadly speaking, types of dementia are grouped as cortical or subcortical. Cortical refers to dementias that originate in damage to the cortex — the outer, gray, wrinkled layer layer of brain tissue with which people may be most familiar. Subcortical dementia has its roots in structures below the cortex, inside the brain. The dementia symptoms vary based on whether the dementia is cortical or subcortical. Despite this distinction, dementias of all kinds often involve multiple parts of the brain, and there is ongoing debate as to whether this is a meaningful way to categorize dementia symptoms.
Cortical dementia is likely to result in dementia symptoms such as loss of memory, loss of the ability to recognize people, and difficulty recalling the right words for things or concepts. Cortical dementias include:
- Alzheimer’s disease.Alzheimer’s disease causes a loss of memory and ability to think clearly. It is a progressive disease, eventually leading to a loss of ability to complete tasks of daily living.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.Also sometimes called mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jacob occurs when naturally occuring brain proteins called prions start to change shape. This leads to cognitive impairments such as loss of memory, changes in thought processes, and changes in behavior.
- Frontotemporal dementia.This type of dementia results from degeneration of cells in the frontal lobe; it's characterized by behavioral and language deficits at a relatively young age — as young as 40.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.This type of dementia is due to a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1) but is also often related to a history of heavy alcohol consumption or to having AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Memory is affected, and people with this dementia often tell untrue stories that they fully believe to be true. Physically, this dementia can interfere with a person’s ability to move smoothly.
Dementia symptoms associated with subcortical dementias include loss of motor skills and the ability to learn processes, resulting in a general sense of slowing down. These types of dementia include:
- Huntington’s disease.A rare, inherited cause of dementia, Huntington’s disease leads to problems with motion such as twitches and lack of balance or coordination and may also lead to changes in mood, personality, and behavior.
- Parkinson’s disease.Parkinson’s disease is characterized by the gradual loss of motor skills, or shakiness and tremors while in motion. People with Parkinson’s disease may eventually experience other dementia symptoms, such as loss of memory.
- Vascular dementia.Vascular dementia occurs as the result of loss of oxygenated blood to parts of the brain. This can be the result of a single stroke or many small strokes, in which case it is called multi-infarct dementia. Evidence shows that subcortical vascular dementia also has effects in the cortex, leading to cortical dementia symptoms.
Some types of dementia appear to affect both cortical and subcortical areas of the brain. Dementia with Lewy bodies falls in this group. This type of dementia occurs because clusters of a certain type of protein called alpha-synuclein form in the neurons in various areas of the brain, leading to impaired memory, motor skills, and mood. Dementia with Lewy bodies can resemble both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease — and Lewy bodies are often found in patients with other types of dementia.
Video: Alzheimer's | Signs Of Dementia | StreamingWell.com
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