Disease: Dementia

    Dementia facts*

    *Dementia facts medical author: Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

    • Dementia is a term that describes a collection of symptoms that include decreased intellectual functioning that interferes with normal life functions and is usually used to describe people who have two or more major life functions impaired or lost such as memory, language, perception, judgment or reasoning; they may lose emotional and behavioral control, develop personality changes and have problem solving abilities reduced or lost.
    • There are different classification schemes for dementias roughly based (and with overlap) on observed problems; some frequently used are cortical (memory, language, thinking, social) , subcortical (emotions, movement, memory), progressive (cognitive abilities worsen over time), primary (results from a specific disease such as Alzheimer's disease and secondary (occurs because of disease or injury).
    • Alzheimer's disease (AD): is the most common cause of dementia in people over age 65 with cause possibly related to amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles; almost all brain functions, including memory, movement, language, judgment, behavior, and abstract thinking, are eventually affected.
    • Vascular dementia: is the second most common cause of dementia caused by brain damage from cerebrovascular or cardiovascular problems (strokes) or other problems that inhibit vascular function; symptoms similar to AD but personality and emotions effected only late in the disease.
    • Lewy body dementia: is common and progressive where cells in the brain's cortex die and other contain abnormal structures (Lewy bodies); symptoms overlap with Alzheimer's disease but also include hallucinations, shuffling gait, and flexed posture with symptoms that may vary daily.
    • Frontotemporal dementia: is dementia linked to degeneration of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal brain lobes and some evidence for a genetic factor (many have a family history of the disease); symptoms in patients (usually ages 40 – 65) have judgment and social behavior problems such as stealing, neglecting responsibilities, increased appetite, compulsive behavior and eventual motor skill problems and memory loss.
    • HIV-associated dementia: is due to infection of the brain with HIV virus; symptoms include impaired memory, apathy, social withdrawal, and concentration problems.
    • Huntington's disease: is a heredity disorder caused by a faulty gene and children of a person with the disorder have a 50% chance of getting the disease; symptoms begin in 30-40 year old people with personality changes such asanxiety, depression and progress to show psychotic behavior severe dementia and chorea - involuntary jerky, arrhythmic movements of the body.
    • Dementia pugilistica: is also termed Boxer's syndrome, is due to traumatic injury (often repeatedly) to the brain; symptoms commonly are dementia and parkinsonism (tremors, gait abnormalities) and other changes depending where brain injury has happened.
    • Corticobasal degeneration: is a progressive nerve cell loss in multiple areas of the brain; symptoms begin at about age 60 on one side of the body and include poor coordination and rigidity with associated visual-spatial problems that can progress to memory loss, hesitant speech and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing).
    • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: is a rare disease that seems related to a gene mutation that causes rapid (death about one year after symptoms begin to develop) degenerative and fatal brain disease in people usually over 60 years old; personality changes and reduced coordination develop, rapidly followed by impaired judgment and vision and many patients develop a coma before they die.
    • Other rare hereditary dementias: – Most of these diseases develop in people between 50 – 60 years old and most have variable symptoms of poor reflexes, dementia, hallucinations, paralysis and most develop coma before death; some of the names of these diseases are Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease, familial British dementia, familial Danish dementia and fatal familial insomnia.
    • Secondary dementias: These dementias occur in patients with other disorders of movement such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis and may because by one or more problems listed above; these dementias may share symptoms with any of the above mentioned dementias but researchers are unsure if this is due to disease overlap or other causes.
    • Dementias in children: While infections, trauma and poisoning can lead to dementia in both children and adults, there are some dementias that are unique to children but may result in mental problems, seizures, reduction or loss of motor skills, blindness, neurodegeneration and death; many are inherited disorders such as Niemann-Pick disease, Batten disease, Lafora disease and mitochondrial abnormalities.
    • Other conditions that may cause dementia: Reactions to medications, endocrine and metabolic problems, nutritional deficiencies, infections, subdural hematomas, poisoning, brain tumors, anoxia (lack of oxygen), heart and lung problems.
    • What conditions are not dementia: Although these conditions may resemble some aspects of dementia, they have different causes, usually are treatable and have better outcomes; examples are depression, delirium, mild cognitive impairment and age-related cognitive decline.
    • Dementia causes: All causes of dementia result from death and damage of nerve cells in the brain; genetics and possibly the formation of different types of inclusions in the brain cells are likely the major causes, although some researchers suggest that certain inclusions may be only side effects of an underlying disorder.
    • Risk factors for dementia include advancing age, genetics (family history), smoking, alcohol use, atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, diabetes, high plasma homocysteine levels, mild cognitive impairment, Down syndrome
    • Dementia is diagnosed by using many methods such as patient's medical and family history, physical exam, neurological evaluations, cognitive and neuropsychological testing, CT's, MRI's and other brain scans, mental status exams, electroencephalograms, blood tests, psychiatric evaluations, and even some pre-symptomatic tests are available for some patients that may have a genetic link to dementia.
    • Most treatments for dementia will neither reverse or stop the disease; however, there are treatments and medications that may reduce the symptoms and slow the disease progression; they are tight glucose control by persons with diabetes, intellectual stimulating activities, lowering cholesterol and homocysteine levels, regular exercise, education, controlling inflammation of body tissues, using NSAID's and possibly other medications.

    Introduction to Dementia

    A woman in her early 50s was admitted to a hospital because of increasingly odd behavior. Her family reported that she had been showing memory problems and strong feelings of jealousy. She also had become disoriented at home and was hiding objects. During a doctor's examination, the woman was unable to remember her husband's name, the year, or how long she had been at the hospital. She could read but did not seem to understand what she read, and she stressed the words in an unusual way. She sometimes became agitated and seemed to have hallucinations and irrational fears.

    This woman, known as Auguste D., was the first person reported to have the disease now known as Alzheimer's disease * (AD) after Alois Alzheimer, the German doctor who first described it. After Auguste D. died in 1906, doctors examined her brain and found that it appeared shrunken and contained several unusual features, including strange clumps of protein called plaques and tangled fibers inside the nerve cells. Memory impairments and other symptoms of dementia, which means "deprived of mind," had been described in older adults since ancient times. However, because Auguste D. began to show symptoms at a relatively early age, doctors did not think her disease could be related to what was then called "senile dementia. "The word senile is derived from a Latin term that means, roughly, "old age."

    It is now clear that AD is a major cause of dementia in elderly people as well as in relatively young adults. Furthermore, we know that it is only one of many disorders that can lead to dementia. The U. S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment estimates that as many as 6.8 million people in the United States have dementia, and at least 1.8 million of those are severely affected. Studies in some communities have found that almost half of all people age 85 and older have some form of dementia. Although it is common in very elderly individuals, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. Many people live into their 90s and even 100s without any symptoms of dementia.

    Besides senile dementia, other terms often used to describe dementia include senility and organic brain syndrome. Senility and senile dementia are outdated terms that reflect the formerly widespread belief that dementia was a normal part of aging. Organic brain syndrome is a general term that refers to physical disorders (not psychiatric in origin) that impair mental functions.

    Research in the last 30 years has led to a greatly improved understanding of what dementia is, who gets it, and how it develops and affects the brain. This work is beginning to pay off with better diagnostic techniques, improved treatments, and even potential ways of preventing these diseases.

    What Is Dementia?

    Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a descriptive term for a collection of symptoms that can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships. They also lose their ability to solve problems and maintain emotional control, and they may experience personality changes and behavioral problems such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations. While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, memory loss by itself does not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions - such as memory, language skills, perception, or cognitive skills including reasoning and judgment - are significantly impaired without loss of consciousness.

    There are many disorders that can cause dementia. Some, such as AD, lead to a progressive loss of mental functions. But other types of dementia can be halted or reversed with appropriate treatment.

    With AD and many other types of dementia, disease processes cause many nerve cells to stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die. In contrast, normal aging does not result in the loss of large numbers of neurons in the brain.

    What Are the Different Kinds of Dementia?

    Dementing disorders can be classified many different ways. These classification schemes attempt to group disorders that have particular features in common, such as whether they are progressive or what parts of the brain are affected. Some frequently used classifications include the following:

    • Cortical dementia: dementia where the brain damage primarily affects the brain's cortex, or outer layer. Cortical dementias tend to cause problems with memory, language, thinking, and social behavior.
    • Subcortical dementia: dementia that affects parts of the brain below the cortex. Subcortical dementia tends to cause changes in emotions and movement in addition to problems with memory.
    • Progressive dementia: dementia that gets worse over time, gradually interfering with more and more cognitive abilities.
    • Primary dementia: dementia such as AD that does not result from any other disease.
    • Secondary dementia: dementia that occurs as a result of a physical disease or injury.

    Some types of dementia fit into more than one of these classifications. For example, AD is considered both a progressive and a cortical dementia.

    Alzheimer's disease

    Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in people aged 65 and older.

    In most people, symptoms of AD appear after age 60. However, there are some early-onset forms of the disease, usually linked to a specific gene defect, which may appear as early as age 30. AD usually causes a gradual decline in cognitive abilities, usually during a span of 7 to 10 years. Nearly all brain functions, including memory, movement, language, judgment, behavior, and abstract thinking, are eventually affected.

    AD is characterized by two abnormalities in the brain: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques, which are found in the tissue between the nerve cells, are unusual clumps of a protein called beta amyloid along with degenerating bits of neurons and other cells.

    Neurofibrillary tangles are bundles of twisted filaments found within neurons. These tangles are largely made up of a protein called tau. In healthy neurons, the tau protein helps the functioning of microtubules, which are part of the cell's structural support and deliver substances throughout the nerve cell. However, in AD, tau is changed in a way that causes it to twist into pairs of helical filaments that collect into tangles. When this happens, the microtubules cannot function correctly and they disintegrate. This collapse of the neuron's transport system may impair communication between nerve cells and cause them to die.

    Researchers do not know if amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are harmful or if they are merely side effects of the disease process that damages neurons and leads to the symptoms of AD. They do know that plaques and tangles usually increase in the brain as AD progresses.

    In the early stages of AD, patients may experience memory impairment, lapses of judgment, and subtle changes in personality. As the disorder progresses, memory and language problems worsen and patients begin to have difficulty performing activities of daily living, such as balancing a checkbook or remembering to take medications. They also may have visuospatial problems, such as difficulty navigating an unfamiliar route. They may become disoriented about places and times, may suffer delusions (such as the idea that someone is stealing from them or that their spouse is being unfaithful), and may become short-tempered and hostile. During the late stages of the disease, patients begin to lose the ability to control motor functions. They may have difficulty swallowing and lose bowel and bladder control. They eventually lose the ability to recognize family members and to speak. As AD progresses, it begins to affect the person's emotions and behavior. Most people with AD eventually develop symptoms such as aggression, agitation, depression, sleeplessness, or delusions.

    On average, patients with AD live for 8 to 10 years after they are diagnosed. However, some people live as long as 20 years. Patients with AD often die of aspiration pneumonia because they lose the ability to swallow late in the course of the disease.

    Vascular dementia

    Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia, after AD. It is caused by brain damage from cerebrovascular or cardiovascular problems - usually strokes. It also may result from genetic diseases, endocarditis (infection of a heart valve), or amyloid angiopathy (a process in which amyloid protein builds up in the brain's blood vessels, sometimes causing hemorrhagic or "bleeding" strokes). In many cases, it may coexist with AD. The incidence of vascular dementia increases with advancing age and is similar in men and women.

    Symptoms of vascular dementia often begin suddenly, frequently after a stroke. Patients may have a history of high blood pressure, vascular disease, or previous strokes or heart attacks. Vascular dementia may or may not get worse with time, depending on whether the person has additional strokes. In some cases, symptoms may get better with time. When the disease does get worse, it often progresses in a stepwise manner, with sudden changes in ability. Vascular dementia with brain damage to the mid-brain regions, however, may cause a gradual, progressive cognitive impairment that may look much like AD. Unlike people with AD, people with vascular dementia often maintain their personality and normal levels of emotional responsiveness until the later stages of the disease.

    People with vascular dementia frequently wander at night and often have other problems commonly found in people who have had a stroke, including depression and incontinence.

    There are several types of vascular dementia, which vary slightly in their causes and symptoms. One type, called multi-infarct dementia (MID), is caused by numerous small strokes in the brain. MID typically includes multiple damaged areas, called infarcts, along with extensive lesions in the white matter, or nerve fibers, of the brain.

    Because the infarcts in MID affect isolated areas of the brain, the symptoms are often limited to one side of the body or they may affect just one or a few specific functions, such as language. Neurologists call these "local" or "focal" symptoms, as opposed to the "global" symptoms seen in AD, which affect many functions and are not restricted to one side of the body.

    Although not all strokes cause dementia, in some cases a single stroke can damage the brain enough to cause dementia. This condition is called single-infarct dementia. Dementia is more common when the stroke takes place on the left side (hemisphere) of the brain and/or when it involves the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory.

    Another type of vascular dementia is called Binswanger's disease. This rare form of dementia is characterized by damage to small blood vessels in the white matter of the brain (white matter is found in the inner layers of the brain and contains many nerve fibers coated with a whitish, fatty substance called myelin). Binswanger's disease leads to brain lesions, loss of memory, disordered cognition, and mood changes. Patients with this disease often show signs of abnormal blood pressure, stroke, blood abnormalities, disease of the large blood vessels in the neck, and/or disease of the heart valves. Other prominent features include urinary incontinence, difficulty walking, clumsiness, slowness, lack of facial expression, and speech difficulty. These symptoms, which usually begin after the age of 60, are not always present in all patients and may sometimes appear only temporarily. Treatment of Binswanger's disease is symptomatic, and may include the use of medications to control high blood pressure, depression, heart arrhythmias, and low blood pressure. The disorder often includes episodes of partial recovery.

    Another type of vascular dementia is linked to a rare hereditary disorder called CADASIL, which stands for cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarct and leukoencephalopathy. CADASIL is linked to abnormalities of a specific gene, Notch3, which is located on chromosome 19. This condition causes multi-infarct dementia as well as stroke, migraine with aura, and mood disorders. The first symptoms usually appear in people who are in their twenties, thirties, or forties and affected individuals often die by age 65. Researchers believe most people with CADASIL go undiagnosed, and the actual prevalence of the disease is not yet known.

    Other causes of vascular dementia include vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessel system; profound hypotension (low blood pressure); and lesions caused by brain hemorrhage. The autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus and the inflammatory disease temporal arteritis can also damage blood vessels in a way that leads to vascular dementia.

    Lewy body dementia (LBD)

    Lewy body dementia (LBD) is one of the most common types of progressive dementia. LBD usually occurs sporadically, in people with no known family history of the disease. However, rare familial cases have occasionally been reported.

    In LBD, cells die in the brain's cortex, or outer layer, and in a part of the mid-brain called the substantia nigra. Many of the remaining nerve cells in the substantia nigra contain abnormal structures called Lewy bodies that are the hallmark of the disease. Lewy bodies may also appear in the brain's cortex, or outer layer. Lewy bodies contain a protein called alpha-synuclein that has been linked to Parkinson's disease and several other disorders. Researchers, who sometimes refer to these disorders collectively as "synucleinopathies," do not yet know why this protein accumulates inside nerve cells in LBD.

    The symptoms of LBD overlap with AD in many ways, and may include memory impairment, poor judgment, and confusion. However, LBD typically also includes visual hallucinations, parkinsonian symptoms such as a shuffling gait and flexed posture, and day-to-day fluctuations in the severity of symptoms. Patients with LBD live an average of 7 years after symptoms begin.

    There is no cure for LBD, and treatments are aimed at controlling the parkinsonian and psychiatric symptoms of the disorder. Patients sometimes respond dramatically to treatment with antiparkinsonian drugs and/or cholinesterase inhibitors, such as those used for AD. Some studies indicate that neuroleptic drugs, such as clozapine and olanzapine, also can reduce the psychiatric symptoms of this disease. But neuroleptic drugs may cause severe adverse reactions, so other therapies should be tried first and patients using these drugs should be closely monitored.

    Lewy bodies are often found in the brains of people with Parkinson's and AD. These findings suggest that either LBD is related to these other causes of dementia or that the diseases sometimes coexist in the same person.

    Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)

    Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), sometimes called frontal lobe dementia, describes a group of diseases characterized by degeneration of nerve cells - especially those in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Unlike AD, FTD usually does not include formation of amyloid plaques. In many people with FTD, there is an abnormal form of tau protein in the brain, which accumulates into neurofibrillary tangles. This disrupts normal cell activities and may cause the cells to die.

    Symptoms of FTD usually appear between the ages of 40 and 65. In many cases, people with FTD have a family history of dementia, suggesting that there is a strong genetic factor in the disease. The duration of FTD varies, with some patients declining rapidly over 2 to 3 years and others showing only minimal changes for many years. People with FTD live with the disease for an average of 5 to 10 years after diagnosis.

    Because structures found in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain control judgment and social behavior, people with FTD often have problems maintaining normal interactions and following social conventions. They may steal or exhibit impolite and socially inappropriate behavior, and they may neglect their normal responsibilities. Other common symptoms include loss of speech and language, compulsive or repetitive behavior, increased appetite, and motor problems such as stiffness and balance problems. Memory loss also may occur, although it typically appears late in the disease.

    In one type of FTD called Pick's disease, certain nerve cells become abnormal and swollen before they die. These swollen, or ballooned, neurons are one hallmark of the disease. The brains of people with Pick's disease also have abnormal structures called Pick bodies, composed largely of the protein tau, inside the neurons. The cause of Pick's disease is unknown, but it runs in some families and thus it is probably due at least in part to a faulty gene or genes. The disease usually begins after age 50 and causes changes in personality and behavior that gradually worsen over time. The symptoms of Pick's disease are very similar to those of AD, and may include inappropriate social behavior, loss of mental flexibility, language problems, and difficulty with thinking and concentration. There is currently no way to slow the progressive degeneration found in Pick's disease. However, medication may be helpful in reducing aggression and other behavioral problems, and in treating depression.

    In some cases, familial FTD is linked to a mutation in the tau gene. This disorder, called frontotemporal dementia with parkinsonism linked to chromosome 17 (FTDP-17), is much like other types of FTD but often includes psychiatric symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.

    Primary progressive aphasia (PPA) is a type of FTD that may begin in people as early as their forties. "Aphasia" is a general term used to refer to deficits in language functions, such as speaking, understanding what others are saying, and naming common objects. In PPA one or more of these functions can become impaired. Symptoms often begin gradually and progress slowly over a period of years. As the disease progresses, memory and attention may also be impaired and patients may show personality and behavior changes. Many, but not all, people with PPA eventually develop symptoms of dementia.

    HIV-associated dementia (HAD)

    HIV-associated dementia (HAD) results from infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. HAD can cause widespread destruction of the brain's white matter. This leads to a type of dementia that generally includes impaired memory, apathy, social withdrawal, and difficulty concentrating. People with HAD often develop movement problems as well. There is no specific treatment for HAD, but AIDS drugs can delay onset of the disease and may help to reduce symptoms.

    Huntington's disease (HD)

    Huntington's disease (HD) is a hereditary disorder caused by a faulty gene for a protein called huntingtin. The children of people with the disorder have a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. The disease causes degeneration in many regions of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of HD usually begin when patients are in their thirties or forties, and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is about 15 years.

    Cognitive symptoms of HD typically begin with mild personality changes, such as irritability, anxiety, and depression, and progress to severe dementia. Many patients also show psychotic behavior. HD causes chorea - involuntary jerky, arrhythmic movements of the body - as well as muscle weakness, clumsiness, and gait disturbances.

    Dementia pugilistica

    Dementia pugilistica, also called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or Boxer's syndrome, is caused by head trauma, such as that experienced by people who have been punched many times in the head during boxing. The most common symptoms of the condition are dementia and parkinsonism, which can appear many years after the trauma ends. Affected individuals may also develop poor coordination and slurred speech. A single traumatic brain injury may also lead to a disorder called post-traumatic dementia (PTD). PTD is much like dementia pugilistica but usually also includes long-term memory problems. Other symptoms vary depending on which part of the brain was damaged by the injury.

    Corticobasal degeneration (CBD)

    Corticobasal degeneration (CBD) is a progressive disorder characterized by nerve cell loss and atrophy of multiple areas of the brain. Brain cells from people with CBD often have abnormal accumulations of the protein tau. CBD usually progresses gradually over the course of 6 to 8 years. Initial symptoms, which typically begin at or around age 60, may first appear on one side of the body but eventually will affect both sides. Some of the symptoms, such as poor coordination and rigidity, are similar to those found in Parkinson's disease. Other symptoms may include memory loss, dementia, visual-spatial problems, apraxia (loss of the ability to make familiar, purposeful movements), hesitant and halting speech, myoclonus (involuntary muscular jerks), and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Death is often caused by pneumonia or other secondary problems such as sepsis (severe infection of the blood) or pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs).

    There are no specific treatments available for CBD. Drugs such as clonazepam may help with myoclonus, however, and occupational, physical, and speech therapy can help in managing the disabilities associated with this disease. The symptoms of the disease often do not respond to Parkinson's medications or other drugs.

    Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)

    Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare, degenerative, fatal brain disorder. Symptoms usually begin after age 60 and most patients die within 1 year. Many researchers believe CJD results from an abnormal form of a protein called a prion. Most cases of CJD occur sporadically - that is, in people who have no known risk factors for the disease. However, some cases of CJD in the United States are hereditary, caused by a mutation in the gene for the prion protein. In rare cases, CJD can also be acquired through exposure to diseased brain or nervous system tissue, usually through certain medical procedures. There is no evidence that CJD is contagious through the air or through casual contact with a CJD patient.

    Patients with CJD may initially experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. Other symptoms may include insomnia and depression. As the illness progresses, mental impairment becomes severe. Patients often develop myoclonus and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak, and go into a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these patients and can lead to death.

    CJD belongs to a family of human and animal diseases known as the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Spongiform refers to the characteristic appearance of infected brains, which become filled with holes until they resemble sponges when viewed under a microscope. CJD is the most common of the known human TSEs. Others include fatal familial insomnia and Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease (see below).

    In recent years, a new type of CJD, called variant CJD (vCJD), has been found in Great Britain and several other European countries. The initial symptoms of vCJD are different from those of classic CJD and the disorder typically occurs in younger patients. Research suggests that vCJD may have resulted from human consumption of beef from cattle with a TSE disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease."

    Introduction to Dementia

    A woman in her early 50s was admitted to a hospital because of increasingly odd behavior. Her family reported that she had been showing memory problems and strong feelings of jealousy. She also had become disoriented at home and was hiding objects. During a doctor's examination, the woman was unable to remember her husband's name, the year, or how long she had been at the hospital. She could read but did not seem to understand what she read, and she stressed the words in an unusual way. She sometimes became agitated and seemed to have hallucinations and irrational fears.

    This woman, known as Auguste D., was the first person reported to have the disease now known as Alzheimer's disease * (AD) after Alois Alzheimer, the German doctor who first described it. After Auguste D. died in 1906, doctors examined her brain and found that it appeared shrunken and contained several unusual features, including strange clumps of protein called plaques and tangled fibers inside the nerve cells. Memory impairments and other symptoms of dementia, which means "deprived of mind," had been described in older adults since ancient times. However, because Auguste D. began to show symptoms at a relatively early age, doctors did not think her disease could be related to what was then called "senile dementia. "The word senile is derived from a Latin term that means, roughly, "old age."

    It is now clear that AD is a major cause of dementia in elderly people as well as in relatively young adults. Furthermore, we know that it is only one of many disorders that can lead to dementia. The U. S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment estimates that as many as 6.8 million people in the United States have dementia, and at least 1.8 million of those are severely affected. Studies in some communities have found that almost half of all people age 85 and older have some form of dementia. Although it is common in very elderly individuals, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. Many people live into their 90s and even 100s without any symptoms of dementia.

    Besides senile dementia, other terms often used to describe dementia include senility and organic brain syndrome. Senility and senile dementia are outdated terms that reflect the formerly widespread belief that dementia was a normal part of aging. Organic brain syndrome is a general term that refers to physical disorders (not psychiatric in origin) that impair mental functions.

    Research in the last 30 years has led to a greatly improved understanding of what dementia is, who gets it, and how it develops and affects the brain. This work is beginning to pay off with better diagnostic techniques, improved treatments, and even potential ways of preventing these diseases.

    What Is Dementia?

    Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a descriptive term for a collection of symptoms that can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships. They also lose their ability to solve problems and maintain emotional control, and they may experience personality changes and behavioral problems such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations. While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, memory loss by itself does not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions - such as memory, language skills, perception, or cognitive skills including reasoning and judgment - are significantly impaired without loss of consciousness.

    There are many disorders that can cause dementia. Some, such as AD, lead to a progressive loss of mental functions. But other types of dementia can be halted or reversed with appropriate treatment.

    With AD and many other types of dementia, disease processes cause many nerve cells to stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die. In contrast, normal aging does not result in the loss of large numbers of neurons in the brain.

    What Are the Different Kinds of Dementia?

    Dementing disorders can be classified many different ways. These classification schemes attempt to group disorders that have particular features in common, such as whether they are progressive or what parts of the brain are affected. Some frequently used classifications include the following:

    • Cortical dementia: dementia where the brain damage primarily affects the brain's cortex, or outer layer. Cortical dementias tend to cause problems with memory, language, thinking, and social behavior.
    • Subcortical dementia: dementia that affects parts of the brain below the cortex. Subcortical dementia tends to cause changes in emotions and movement in addition to problems with memory.
    • Progressive dementia: dementia that gets worse over time, gradually interfering with more and more cognitive abilities.
    • Primary dementia: dementia such as AD that does not result from any other disease.
    • Secondary dementia: dementia that occurs as a result of a physical disease or injury.

    Some types of dementia fit into more than one of these classifications. For example, AD is considered both a progressive and a cortical dementia.

    Alzheimer's disease

    Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in people aged 65 and older.

    In most people, symptoms of AD appear after age 60. However, there are some early-onset forms of the disease, usually linked to a specific gene defect, which may appear as early as age 30. AD usually causes a gradual decline in cognitive abilities, usually during a span of 7 to 10 years. Nearly all brain functions, including memory, movement, language, judgment, behavior, and abstract thinking, are eventually affected.

    AD is characterized by two abnormalities in the brain: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques, which are found in the tissue between the nerve cells, are unusual clumps of a protein called beta amyloid along with degenerating bits of neurons and other cells.

    Neurofibrillary tangles are bundles of twisted filaments found within neurons. These tangles are largely made up of a protein called tau. In healthy neurons, the tau protein helps the functioning of microtubules, which are part of the cell's structural support and deliver substances throughout the nerve cell. However, in AD, tau is changed in a way that causes it to twist into pairs of helical filaments that collect into tangles. When this happens, the microtubules cannot function correctly and they disintegrate. This collapse of the neuron's transport system may impair communication between nerve cells and cause them to die.

    Researchers do not know if amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are harmful or if they are merely side effects of the disease process that damages neurons and leads to the symptoms of AD. They do know that plaques and tangles usually increase in the brain as AD progresses.

    In the early stages of AD, patients may experience memory impairment, lapses of judgment, and subtle changes in personality. As the disorder progresses, memory and language problems worsen and patients begin to have difficulty performing activities of daily living, such as balancing a checkbook or remembering to take medications. They also may have visuospatial problems, such as difficulty navigating an unfamiliar route. They may become disoriented about places and times, may suffer delusions (such as the idea that someone is stealing from them or that their spouse is being unfaithful), and may become short-tempered and hostile. During the late stages of the disease, patients begin to lose the ability to control motor functions. They may have difficulty swallowing and lose bowel and bladder control. They eventually lose the ability to recognize family members and to speak. As AD progresses, it begins to affect the person's emotions and behavior. Most people with AD eventually develop symptoms such as aggression, agitation, depression, sleeplessness, or delusions.

    On average, patients with AD live for 8 to 10 years after they are diagnosed. However, some people live as long as 20 years. Patients with AD often die of aspiration pneumonia because they lose the ability to swallow late in the course of the disease.

    Vascular dementia

    Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia, after AD. It is caused by brain damage from cerebrovascular or cardiovascular problems - usually strokes. It also may result from genetic diseases, endocarditis (infection of a heart valve), or amyloid angiopathy (a process in which amyloid protein builds up in the brain's blood vessels, sometimes causing hemorrhagic or "bleeding" strokes). In many cases, it may coexist with AD. The incidence of vascular dementia increases with advancing age and is similar in men and women.

    Symptoms of vascular dementia often begin suddenly, frequently after a stroke. Patients may have a history of high blood pressure, vascular disease, or previous strokes or heart attacks. Vascular dementia may or may not get worse with time, depending on whether the person has additional strokes. In some cases, symptoms may get better with time. When the disease does get worse, it often progresses in a stepwise manner, with sudden changes in ability. Vascular dementia with brain damage to the mid-brain regions, however, may cause a gradual, progressive cognitive impairment that may look much like AD. Unlike people with AD, people with vascular dementia often maintain their personality and normal levels of emotional responsiveness until the later stages of the disease.

    People with vascular dementia frequently wander at night and often have other problems commonly found in people who have had a stroke, including depression and incontinence.

    There are several types of vascular dementia, which vary slightly in their causes and symptoms. One type, called multi-infarct dementia (MID), is caused by numerous small strokes in the brain. MID typically includes multiple damaged areas, called infarcts, along with extensive lesions in the white matter, or nerve fibers, of the brain.

    Because the infarcts in MID affect isolated areas of the brain, the symptoms are often limited to one side of the body or they may affect just one or a few specific functions, such as language. Neurologists call these "local" or "focal" symptoms, as opposed to the "global" symptoms seen in AD, which affect many functions and are not restricted to one side of the body.

    Although not all strokes cause dementia, in some cases a single stroke can damage the brain enough to cause dementia. This condition is called single-infarct dementia. Dementia is more common when the stroke takes place on the left side (hemisphere) of the brain and/or when it involves the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory.

    Another type of vascular dementia is called Binswanger's disease. This rare form of dementia is characterized by damage to small blood vessels in the white matter of the brain (white matter is found in the inner layers of the brain and contains many nerve fibers coated with a whitish, fatty substance called myelin). Binswanger's disease leads to brain lesions, loss of memory, disordered cognition, and mood changes. Patients with this disease often show signs of abnormal blood pressure, stroke, blood abnormalities, disease of the large blood vessels in the neck, and/or disease of the heart valves. Other prominent features include urinary incontinence, difficulty walking, clumsiness, slowness, lack of facial expression, and speech difficulty. These symptoms, which usually begin after the age of 60, are not always present in all patients and may sometimes appear only temporarily. Treatment of Binswanger's disease is symptomatic, and may include the use of medications to control high blood pressure, depression, heart arrhythmias, and low blood pressure. The disorder often includes episodes of partial recovery.

    Another type of vascular dementia is linked to a rare hereditary disorder called CADASIL, which stands for cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarct and leukoencephalopathy. CADASIL is linked to abnormalities of a specific gene, Notch3, which is located on chromosome 19. This condition causes multi-infarct dementia as well as stroke, migraine with aura, and mood disorders. The first symptoms usually appear in people who are in their twenties, thirties, or forties and affected individuals often die by age 65. Researchers believe most people with CADASIL go undiagnosed, and the actual prevalence of the disease is not yet known.

    Other causes of vascular dementia include vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessel system; profound hypotension (low blood pressure); and lesions caused by brain hemorrhage. The autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus and the inflammatory disease temporal arteritis can also damage blood vessels in a way that leads to vascular dementia.

    Lewy body dementia (LBD)

    Lewy body dementia (LBD) is one of the most common types of progressive dementia. LBD usually occurs sporadically, in people with no known family history of the disease. However, rare familial cases have occasionally been reported.

    In LBD, cells die in the brain's cortex, or outer layer, and in a part of the mid-brain called the substantia nigra. Many of the remaining nerve cells in the substantia nigra contain abnormal structures called Lewy bodies that are the hallmark of the disease. Lewy bodies may also appear in the brain's cortex, or outer layer. Lewy bodies contain a protein called alpha-synuclein that has been linked to Parkinson's disease and several other disorders. Researchers, who sometimes refer to these disorders collectively as "synucleinopathies," do not yet know why this protein accumulates inside nerve cells in LBD.

    The symptoms of LBD overlap with AD in many ways, and may include memory impairment, poor judgment, and confusion. However, LBD typically also includes visual hallucinations, parkinsonian symptoms such as a shuffling gait and flexed posture, and day-to-day fluctuations in the severity of symptoms. Patients with LBD live an average of 7 years after symptoms begin.

    There is no cure for LBD, and treatments are aimed at controlling the parkinsonian and psychiatric symptoms of the disorder. Patients sometimes respond dramatically to treatment with antiparkinsonian drugs and/or cholinesterase inhibitors, such as those used for AD. Some studies indicate that neuroleptic drugs, such as clozapine and olanzapine, also can reduce the psychiatric symptoms of this disease. But neuroleptic drugs may cause severe adverse reactions, so other therapies should be tried first and patients using these drugs should be closely monitored.

    Lewy bodies are often found in the brains of people with Parkinson's and AD. These findings suggest that either LBD is related to these other causes of dementia or that the diseases sometimes coexist in the same person.

    Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)

    Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), sometimes called frontal lobe dementia, describes a group of diseases characterized by degeneration of nerve cells - especially those in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Unlike AD, FTD usually does not include formation of amyloid plaques. In many people with FTD, there is an abnormal form of tau protein in the brain, which accumulates into neurofibrillary tangles. This disrupts normal cell activities and may cause the cells to die.

    Symptoms of FTD usually appear between the ages of 40 and 65. In many cases, people with FTD have a family history of dementia, suggesting that there is a strong genetic factor in the disease. The duration of FTD varies, with some patients declining rapidly over 2 to 3 years and others showing only minimal changes for many years. People with FTD live with the disease for an average of 5 to 10 years after diagnosis.

    Because structures found in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain control judgment and social behavior, people with FTD often have problems maintaining normal interactions and following social conventions. They may steal or exhibit impolite and socially inappropriate behavior, and they may neglect their normal responsibilities. Other common symptoms include loss of speech and language, compulsive or repetitive behavior, increased appetite, and motor problems such as stiffness and balance problems. Memory loss also may occur, although it typically appears late in the disease.

    In one type of FTD called Pick's disease, certain nerve cells become abnormal and swollen before they die. These swollen, or ballooned, neurons are one hallmark of the disease. The brains of people with Pick's disease also have abnormal structures called Pick bodies, composed largely of the protein tau, inside the neurons. The cause of Pick's disease is unknown, but it runs in some families and thus it is probably due at least in part to a faulty gene or genes. The disease usually begins after age 50 and causes changes in personality and behavior that gradually worsen over time. The symptoms of Pick's disease are very similar to those of AD, and may include inappropriate social behavior, loss of mental flexibility, language problems, and difficulty with thinking and concentration. There is currently no way to slow the progressive degeneration found in Pick's disease. However, medication may be helpful in reducing aggression and other behavioral problems, and in treating depression.

    In some cases, familial FTD is linked to a mutation in the tau gene. This disorder, called frontotemporal dementia with parkinsonism linked to chromosome 17 (FTDP-17), is much like other types of FTD but often includes psychiatric symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations.

    Primary progressive aphasia (PPA) is a type of FTD that may begin in people as early as their forties. "Aphasia" is a general term used to refer to deficits in language functions, such as speaking, understanding what others are saying, and naming common objects. In PPA one or more of these functions can become impaired. Symptoms often begin gradually and progress slowly over a period of years. As the disease progresses, memory and attention may also be impaired and patients may show personality and behavior changes. Many, but not all, people with PPA eventually develop symptoms of dementia.

    HIV-associated dementia (HAD)

    HIV-associated dementia (HAD) results from infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. HAD can cause widespread destruction of the brain's white matter. This leads to a type of dementia that generally includes impaired memory, apathy, social withdrawal, and difficulty concentrating. People with HAD often develop movement problems as well. There is no specific treatment for HAD, but AIDS drugs can delay onset of the disease and may help to reduce symptoms.

    Huntington's disease (HD)

    Huntington's disease (HD) is a hereditary disorder caused by a faulty gene for a protein called huntingtin. The children of people with the disorder have a 50 percent chance of inheriting it. The disease causes degeneration in many regions of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of HD usually begin when patients are in their thirties or forties, and the average life expectancy after diagnosis is about 15 years.

    Cognitive symptoms of HD typically begin with mild personality changes, such as irritability, anxiety, and depression, and progress to severe dementia. Many patients also show psychotic behavior. HD causes chorea - involuntary jerky, arrhythmic movements of the body - as well as muscle weakness, clumsiness, and gait disturbances.

    Dementia pugilistica

    Dementia pugilistica, also called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or Boxer's syndrome, is caused by head trauma, such as that experienced by people who have been punched many times in the head during boxing. The most common symptoms of the condition are dementia and parkinsonism, which can appear many years after the trauma ends. Affected individuals may also develop poor coordination and slurred speech. A single traumatic brain injury may also lead to a disorder called post-traumatic dementia (PTD). PTD is much like dementia pugilistica but usually also includes long-term memory problems. Other symptoms vary depending on which part of the brain was damaged by the injury.

    Corticobasal degeneration (CBD)

    Corticobasal degeneration (CBD) is a progressive disorder characterized by nerve cell loss and atrophy of multiple areas of the brain. Brain cells from people with CBD often have abnormal accumulations of the protein tau. CBD usually progresses gradually over the course of 6 to 8 years. Initial symptoms, which typically begin at or around age 60, may first appear on one side of the body but eventually will affect both sides. Some of the symptoms, such as poor coordination and rigidity, are similar to those found in Parkinson's disease. Other symptoms may include memory loss, dementia, visual-spatial problems, apraxia (loss of the ability to make familiar, purposeful movements), hesitant and halting speech, myoclonus (involuntary muscular jerks), and dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). Death is often caused by pneumonia or other secondary problems such as sepsis (severe infection of the blood) or pulmonary embolism (a blood clot in the lungs).

    There are no specific treatments available for CBD. Drugs such as clonazepam may help with myoclonus, however, and occupational, physical, and speech therapy can help in managing the disabilities associated with this disease. The symptoms of the disease often do not respond to Parkinson's medications or other drugs.

    Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)

    Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare, degenerative, fatal brain disorder. Symptoms usually begin after age 60 and most patients die within 1 year. Many researchers believe CJD results from an abnormal form of a protein called a prion. Most cases of CJD occur sporadically - that is, in people who have no known risk factors for the disease. However, some cases of CJD in the United States are hereditary, caused by a mutation in the gene for the prion protein. In rare cases, CJD can also be acquired through exposure to diseased brain or nervous system tissue, usually through certain medical procedures. There is no evidence that CJD is contagious through the air or through casual contact with a CJD patient.

    Patients with CJD may initially experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. Other symptoms may include insomnia and depression. As the illness progresses, mental impairment becomes severe. Patients often develop myoclonus and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak, and go into a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these patients and can lead to death.

    CJD belongs to a family of human and animal diseases known as the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Spongiform refers to the characteristic appearance of infected brains, which become filled with holes until they resemble sponges when viewed under a microscope. CJD is the most common of the known human TSEs. Others include fatal familial insomnia and Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease (see below).

    In recent years, a new type of CJD, called variant CJD (vCJD), has been found in Great Britain and several other European countries. The initial symptoms of vCJD are different from those of classic CJD and the disorder typically occurs in younger patients. Research suggests that vCJD may have resulted from human consumption of beef from cattle with a TSE disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as "mad cow disease."

    Source: http://www.rxlist.com

    Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a descriptive term for a collection of symptoms that can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships. They also lose their ability to solve problems and maintain emotional control, and they may experience personality changes and behavioral problems such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations. While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, memory loss by itself does not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions - such as memory, language skills, perception, or cognitive skills including reasoning and judgment - are significantly impaired without loss of consciousness.

    There are many disorders that can cause dementia. Some, such as AD, lead to a progressive loss of mental functions. But other types of dementia can be halted or reversed with appropriate treatment.

    With AD and many other types of dementia, disease processes cause many nerve cells to stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die. In contrast, normal aging does not result in the loss of large numbers of neurons in the brain.

    Source: http://www.rxlist.com

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