Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a group of diseases that disrupt cognitive function. These diseases are progressive (meaning they get worse over time) and often hard to manage. If you have a loved one with dementia, you’ve likely experienced that it affects their memory, communication, ability to complete normal daily tasks (like forgetting recent instructions, familiar places or faces), and relationships with those they love. But there are several known types of dementia, and each can play out differently. As a family caregiver, it’s important to be aware of the different types of dementia, their symptoms, and how to care for a loved one who has been diagnosed with one of these diseases. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the known types of dementia and provide tips for caregiving.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of cases. It is a progressive disease that affects memory, thinking, and behavior.
Here are four signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s:
Memory loss that disrupts daily life. This includes forgetting important dates or events, asking for the same information repeatedly, and relying on memory aids.
Difficulty completing familiar tasks. People with Alzheimer's may struggle with activities that they were previously able to complete independently, such as cooking or paying bills.
Problems with language. This includes difficulty finding the right words, following conversations, and writing.
Changes in mood and personality. Alzheimer's can cause depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. People with the disease may also experience changes in personality and behavior.
Alzheimer’s differs from other types of dementia in that it typically begins with memory loss and progresses to affect other cognitive functions. Other types of dementia may have different starting symptoms and progress at different rates.
Tips for caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s isn’t easy. It can be challenging to navigate the physical and emotional changes in their behavior. Here are a few tips to make caring for a loved one with any type of dementia, but specifically Alzheimer’s, a little easier.
Establish a routine. People with Alzheimer's thrive on routine and predictability. Establish a daily routine that includes regular mealtimes, bedtime, and activities.
Provide a safe environment. People with Alzheimer's may become disoriented and confused. Ensure that the environment is safe and secure by removing any tripping hazards and installing locks on doors and windows.
Stay connected. Social isolation can lead to depression and anxiety in people with Alzheimer's. Stay connected with your loved one by spending time together, engaging in meaningful activities, and seeking support from family and friends.
Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, which damages brain cells. It is the second most common type of dementia, accounting for 10-20% of cases. Here are four signs and symptoms of vascular dementia:
Confusion and disorientation. People with vascular dementia may become easily disoriented and confused, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings.
Difficulty with decision-making and problem-solving. This includes difficulty with planning, organizing, and making decisions.
Impaired judgment. People with vascular dementia may make poor decisions or have difficulty recognizing dangerous situations.
Difficulty with walking and balance. Vascular dementia can affect motor function, leading to difficulty with walking and balance.
Vascular dementia differs from other types of dementia in that it is caused by a blockage or damage to blood vessels in the brain. It may also progress in a more sudden pattern of distinct declines in cognitive function.
Tips for caring for a loved one with vascular dementia:
Encourage physical activity. Regular exercise can improve blood flow and reduce the risk of further damage to the brain. Encourage your loved one to engage in gentle exercise, such as walking or swimming.
Promote healthy eating. A healthy diet can reduce the risk of further vascular damage. Encourage your loved one to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Simplify the environment. Reducing clutter and obstacles can reduce the risk of both physical and mental strain or injury.
Other, Less Common Types of Dementia
Next, we’ll explore the less-common dementia diagnoses: what they are, a few of the signs of each, and tips for care.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Lewy body dementia (LBD) “is a disease associated with abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain.” (Source) It affects over 1 million people in the United States. Here are a few associated signs and symptoms of dementia with Lewy bodies:
REM sleep behavior disorder is often the first reported sign of this type of dementia.
Parkinson’s disease is linked to LBD.
Severe loss of thinking abilities (not memory, like most other types of dementia).
Movement impairments (including things like muscle stiffness, slow movement, tremors or shaking at rest, balance problems, stooped posture, etc.)
This type of dementia is associated with Parkinson’s disease, which primarily affects movement. Signs of Parkinson’s dementia include tremors, stiffness, and difficulty walking, as well as memory loss, confusion, and changes in mood and behavior.
As the name suggests, mixed dementia is a combination of two or more types of dementia. Most commonly the mix includes both Alzheimer's and vascular dementia, but anyone with two or more types will fall into this classification. It is often a bit more difficult to diagnose than other types because it presents with symptoms of multiple types of dementia. The symptoms and progression may vary depending on the types of dementia involved.
Frontotemporal dementia is a group of disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain (i.e., the front and sides of the brain). Signs include apathy, impulsivity, and difficulty with language and communication.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease is a rare and unfortunately rapidly progressing form of dementia believed to be caused by prions in the brain. Prions are protein particles that need to be detected through a blood test and are highly resistant to destruction. Signs of this form of dementia include rapid mental deterioration, confusion, and difficulty with movement.
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus is another rare type of dementia caused by the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. This buildup often leads to difficulty with walking, incontinence, and memory loss.
Huntington’s disease is a relatively rare genetic disorder that affects movement, behavior, and cognitive function. Signs of Huntington’s disease include involuntary movements, personality changes, and memory loss.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a form of dementia caused by thiamine deficiency (B1), often seen in heavy drinkers. Signs include confusion, memory loss, and difficulty with coordination.
General Tips for Caring for a Loved One with Dementia
First and foremost, make sure your loved one receives the appropriate medical care and treatment for each type of dementia.
Create a safe and supportive environment. It’s important that your loved one is in a space that meets their needs, ideally one that is without any negative behavioral triggers and adapts to their changing abilities.
Be patient and understanding. Dementia can be frustrating and terrifying for both the patient and the caregiver. As much as possible, it's important to remain patient and empathetic as you navigate this together.
Create a daily routine. Having a consistent daily routine can help provide a sense of structure and familiarity for someone with dementia. Habits will be their best friend through this process.
Simplify communication. Speak slowly and clearly, and try to avoid using complex language or asking too many questions at once.
Ensure safety. Dementia can cause confusion and disorientation, so it's important to take measures to prevent falls, wandering, and other accidents.
Stay organized. Keep important documents, medication schedules, and other information in a central location to help you stay on top of your loved one's care.
Take care of yourself. Caring for someone with dementia can be emotionally and physically exhausting, so don’t forget to prioritize your own self-care too.
If you’re providing care to someone with dementia, we invite you to check out our free resources. To get more information about the resources we have available to you as an Orange County, California caregiver, contact us at the California Caregiver Resource Center of Orange County.
Further Reading: Understanding Dementia-Related Wandering
Understanding dementia-related wandering is essential for helping those living with a cognitive impairment to stay safe and get the best care. In this article, we’ll help you understand the causes, symptoms, behavior management tips, treatment options, and community care options to help you better care for a loved one showing signs of dementia-related wandering. Click here to read about it.