Dementia comes in many forms, and it can be easily confused with other conditions. It may be that the symptoms you’re experiencing are caused by depression or stress, or by an infection or dehydration, and that you’re not suffering from dementia at all. 

Although dementia can’t be cured, it can be treated. It’s a progressive condition, which means that its symptoms can be mild at first, but get worse with time. It’s important to identify it early so that a treatment plan can be put in place. 

In this article, we’ll look at the most common types and symptoms of dementia, to give you a clearer idea of whether you might be suffering from the condition and should think about seeking a professional diagnosis. 

The different stages of dementia

Dementia is characterised by a progressive cognitive decline that interferes with the ability to function independently on a daily basis. Dementia experts have identified three stages that a person with dementia is likely to go through: 

  • early (mild) stage
  • middle (moderate) stage
  • later (severe) stage

Because the damage caused is relatively minor to begin with, the symptoms at the early stage of dementia tend to be fairly mild. But dementia is different for everyone who experiences it, and symptoms and their severity vary. The stages are not always clear-cut: a person may experience different symptoms at different stages. 

There are different types of dementia, which can affect different parts of the brain. Therefore, the symptoms a person is likely to experience at the early stage can depend on the type of dementia they are suffering from. Alzheimer’s disease affects the memory-forming part of the brain and memory loss is a common early-stage feature, whereas people suffering from vascular dementia are more likely to experience problems with decision-making and concentration than memory loss.

As the disease progresses and more parts of the brain become damaged, the brain’s ability to function correctly is reduced and symptoms worsen. As a greater area of the brain is affected, the symptoms of the different types of dementia become more similar. During the middle and severe stages, the person with dementia often needs increasing levels of support, as their memory, mood, ability to communicate and physical abilities deteriorate.

 

What are the different types of dementia?

Dementia is a general term describing a condition caused by a number of different diseases of the brain. The most common are:

Alzheimer’s disease 

The most common form of dementia, and best understood, it’s the cause of over 60% of dementia cases in the UK. Alzheimer’s disease is the result of abnormal protein deposits in the brain, which damage and kill nerve cells, causing a shrinking of the brain. During the early stages, the disease attacks the brain’s memory-forming part, the hippocampus. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with short-term memory (developing new memories). The memory for past events tends not to be affected.
  • Confusion and disorientation.
  • Inability to concentrate, organise and plan. 
  • Poor decision-making.
  • Visual perception problems, including recognising people.
  • Problems with speech, finding the right words, repetition.

Vascular dementia 

The cause of around 17% of the UK’s dementia cases, it’s the second most common form of dementia. Often associated with people who have recently had a stroke, vascular dementia is caused by problems with the circulation of blood in the brain. 

The onset of vascular dementia can be sudden, following a stroke or TIA (Transient Ischaemic Attack), in which clots prevent blood reaching the brain tissue. Symptoms depend on which part of the brain is affected, and include: 

  • Problems communicating through spoken language.
  • Difficulties reading and writing.
  • Issues with planning and sequencing (e.g. following simple instructions).
  • Poor concentration, confusion.
  • Memory loss. This is not usually a problem in the early stage, but may occur later on. 

Frontotemporal dementia

Also known as Pick’s disease or frontal lobe dementia, it’s one of the less common forms of dementia and is most often found in 45-65 year olds. It’s caused by the damage and death of nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. These two parts of the brain communicate less efficiently with each other and eventually reduce in size. 

There are two main types of FTD: 

  • behavioural variant FTD, which affects behaviour and personality, including lack of motivation and focus, difficulty planning, loss of inhibitions, and difficulties socialising. 
  • primary progressive aphasia, which causes difficulty with language, including loss of vocabulary and forgetting the meaning of words.

Lewy body dementia (LBD)

Caused by lumps of protein (Lewy bodies) within the nerve cells of the brain, it’s often wrongly mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease. Some people will experience both LBD and Alzheimer’s disease, which is also caused by the build-up of abnormal, but different, proteins in the brain. In these cases, symptoms are usually severe and fast progressing.

There is a connection between LBD and Parkinson’s disease, which is also caused by Lewy bodies in the brain. Both conditions result in: 

  • Difficulties with thinking and moving.
  • Fluctuations in mood.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Problems sleeping. 
  • Lack of alertness.

While Parkinson’s disease doesn’t always lead to dementia, it frequently does. Generally, people with Parkinson’s disease will experience problems with movement before the emergence of dementia-type symptoms. People with LBD will usually experience dementia symptoms before or at the same time as developing problems with movement.

There are other types of dementia, but these are the most common. If you think you might be experiencing the symptoms of dementia, please do get in touch for a fast, discreet and affordable medical assessment.

Written By Al Brunker
November 2021

Reviewed by Dr Elin Davies, Consultant Psychiatrist
January 2022