More than one million individuals and their families are affected by Lewy body dementia in this country. Alzheimer’s is the only degenerative dementia disease that is more widely diagnosed in the United States, yet despite the fact that so many are affected by Lewy body disease, public awareness of the condition and its symptoms is limited.
What is Lewy body dementia?
Lewy body dementia was first described in the early 1900’s by a doctor named Friedrich H. Lewy. He discovered abnormal proteins in the brain that interfered with the brain’s ability to function properly; in particular, these proteins interfere with the creation of dopamine, a chemical released by nerve cells attempting to send signals to other nerve cells. In addition, the proteins disrupt another brain chemical that affects the way one thinks, behaves, and perceives.
As a result of all this, a person with Lewy body dementia usually will develop symptoms in one of three ways:
- He or she will develop a movement disorder that is similar to Parkinson’s disease and which will then progress to include dementia.
- He or she will develop a dementia that is initially very similar to Alzheimer’s dementia, but later develops in a different manner;
- He or she will start with neuropsychiatric issues, such as hallucinations and behavioral issues.
Lewy body dementia is progressive; most individuals develop significant cognitive, physical, and movement challenges over the course of the disease. Lewy body dementia can present many obstacles, so early diagnosis is crucial.
Unfortunately, early diagnosis is often difficult, due to the fact that the disorder can resemble Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia in its early stages; however, here are the symptoms typically associated with Lewy body dementia.
- Dementia. The individual experiences issues related to thinking and remembering that are advanced beyond what is typically associated with a person of his or her age.
- Hallucinations. The person has difficulties with visual or auditory cues that he or she experiences as real, but which are not really there.
- Cognitive challenges. Basic cognitive functions, such as being able to concentrate for an acceptable period of time, become common.
- Movement problems. Both big and small movements can be affected due to stiffness, tremors, and a difficulty in moving at a normal speed.
- Neuroleptic resistance. Neuroleptics are often used to treat hallucinations. These are often ineffective in those with Lewy body disease, due to heightened sensitivity, and can in fact be counterproductive.
- Sleep issues. Many people with Lewy body dementia have physically active dream states, making sleep difficult and interfering with their ability to feel rested.
Because early diagnosis can make a big difference in a patient’s life, determining whether a person has Lewy body or another form of dementia is essential. In most cases, a neurologist may need to make this determination.