Lewy Body or Alzheimer's: Do You Need to Know What KIND of Dementia?

Last updated: July 25, 2008

This week's passing of "Golden Girls" actress Estelle Getty, who died of Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), shone a golden light on a very common type of dementia that's often overshadowed by Alzheimer's.

Lewy Body Dementia: Also called (bear with me, it's a long list!) Lewy body disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, diffuse Lewy Body disease, cortical Lewy body disease, Alzheimer's plus Parkinson's, Parkinson's Disease Dementia, and Parkinsonian dementia, LBD accounts for up to 20 percent of all dementias. But only one-third to one-half of all cases are accurately diagnosed, according to to the Lewy Body Association.

How LBD is like Alzheimer's: Progressive memory loss, decreased judgment, disorientation to time and place, trouble with language.

How LBD is like Parkinson's: Features muscle stiffness, tremors, repeated falls, restless leg syndrome.

How it's unique: Add in hallucinations and delusions, including sleep disturbances due to nightmares.

Dementia is not itself a disease. It's a set of symptoms that appear as the result of several different diseases. Besides LBD, other diseases that feature dementia include:

  • Alzheimer's (the #1 cause)
  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia (Pick's disease, primary progressive aphasia)
  • Parkinson's disease (in those without LBD, dementia often appears late in the disease)
  • Huntington's disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • AIDS
  • Alcoholism (alcoholic dementia)

Since many symptoms are similar, is it important to know exactly which type of dementia you're dealing with? With LBD, as with Alzheimer's, only a postmortem diagnosis is certain. But doctors now are able to pretty accurately distinguish dementia causes. And that's useful, because medications, treatments and prognosis can vary. What's more, a thorough medical work-up to assess dementia symptoms will rule out (or identify) other possible causes, including:

  • Medications
  • Depression
  • Infections
  • Nutritional problems
  • Hypothyroidism

Everybody always wonders, "Is it Alzheimer's?" You certainly don't hear, "Gee, is it Lewy Body?" But it just might be -- and if you know, you'll also be better able to connect with other caregivers in your same boat.

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3 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

over 2 years ago

My sister is 55 yrs old, she was diagnoised @ 52 with 99% alzheimers. She is now having delusions, she can't hold her utensils right anymore & has not been able to hold things in her hands ..

over 2 years ago

The common failure in getting the right diagnostics for the elderly who suffers from what every one calls "Dementia/Alzheimers" is very frustrating. Despite our efforts to take our loved one to various specialists, we could only rule out "low pressure hydrocephalus". The doctors looked at the MRIs and other tests and were very vague about the type of disease (vascular?, Alzheimers?). Just in case, they continue to give her "Aricept", despite the fact that the drug is specific to Alzheimers patients to retard the process of amyloid deposition on the brain cells. I also realize that there is still a lot of research needed and that sometimes only an autopsia, after death would be able to confirm the diagnostics. The tests can at best suggest the type of dementia. Another thing to consider is that brain trauma and other injuries can evolve into dementia/Alzheimers, despite the absence of a genetic predisposition. What can we do to identify one out of 50 possibilities? Certainly research efforts should intensify within this area. Thank you for the article

almost 4 years ago

All I was told 2 years ago was your mom has dimentia.She is on in home hospice.How can I find out what kind of dimentia she has?

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