Caring Currents

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

Last updated: Jul 25, 2008

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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.