Whether you have a close family member with or a friend of a friend or have only seen the illness portrayed on the big screen in devastating movies including 2014’s Still Alice chances are you’re familiar with Alzheimer’s merciless progression and that impact on families and communities.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is the sixth-leading cause of death in America, and every 66 seconds someone develops the disease. Alzheimer’s symptoms usually develop slowly over time, and present first as mild lapses in memory, such as forgetting the names of items or people, or having difficulty with everyday tasks. As the disease progresses, the gaps in memory become much greater, affecting a person’s ability to recall personal history, important information such as phone numbers and addresses, and being able to identify the day or season. In the final stage of the disease, a person suffering from Alzheimer’s will require constant care, either in their own home or a facility.
Though Alzheimer’s disease is the best known and most common dementia, there are several other types of dementia. Lewy body dementia, or LBD, affects over 1 million Americans, and is often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. Named after the scientist that discovered the protein buildup within the brain that causes the disease, Friederich H. Lewy, LBD is the second most common form of dementia. Although LBD symptoms can differ at first (patients can show problems with either cognition or physical movement), the most common symptoms of LBD are impaired thinking and loss of executive functions such as planning, visual hallucinations, behavioral and mood changes such as depression and agitation, and changes in ability to control bodily functions such as blood pressure, temperature, and bowel and bladder control. Typically, LBD onset occurs later in life, with the average patient being between 50 and 85 years of age. The final stages of LBD are similar to those of other dementias, with the patient requiring constant care.
Another form of dementia is called frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, named for the area of the brain it affects. This form of dementia attacks the front and temporal lobes of the brain, shrinking them over a period of years. A patient suffering from FTD may develop the disease as early as 40 years old, presenting with symptoms such as personality changes, lack of judgment, increasingly inappropriate behaviors, and declining personal hygiene. Other symptoms can include overeating, apathy, and repetitive behaviors. The symptoms gradually worsen, and although memory is spared in the early and moderate stages of the disease, it is eventually lost as the disease progresses. There are sub-types of FTD as well, and these can affect a patient’s physical mobility or ability to process and produce language.
Although there is not yet a cure for any of these dementias, there are medications that have been shown to help with the symptoms of dementia. Research is currently being conducted to find medications that target the disease itself, and not just its effects. The current recommendations for prevention of dementia include physical exercise, mental activity, a healthy diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and avoiding or quitting smoking (smoking has been shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s by 80 percent).