The terms dementia and Alzheimer’s are frequently linked together or used synonymously. However, many people are not aware that dementia exists in other forms or types besides Alzheimer’s disease. One lesser-known and unique form of dementia is Lewy body dementia (LBD). Frequently misdiagnosed for other memory-related conditions, it’s important to know how to spot the early symptoms of Lewy body dementia so that you can provide the best care for your loved one.
What is Lewy Body Dementia?
Lewy body dementia is a disease characterized by abnormal deposits of a protein in the brain. These deposits are called Lewy bodies, named after the neurologist who discovered them. As they accumulate, Lewy bodies alter brain chemistry resulting in changes in thinking, movement, behavior, and mood. LBD is a progressive form of dementia affecting an estimated 1 million people in the United States alone. Lewy bodies also accumulate in Parkinson’s disease; however, they are more widely distributed in the cerebral cortex of the brain with LBD (see below diagram). As such, doctors can have difficulty discerning between the two forms of dementia. The difference lies in the onset of symptoms, whether the physical or cognitive appear first, making it all the more important to recognize changes in behavior.
Image source: The Lewy Body Society
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms
The signs of Lewy body dementia are often confused with other brain impairments or psychiatric disorders. Symptoms generally begin slowly and develop at varying rates and severities for different people. While not everyone diagnosed will experience all symptoms, here are the most common ways people are affected by LBD.
Visual hallucinations are one of the early and hallmark signs of Lewy body dementia. Individuals affected may see shapes or even people that are not actually present. Other cognitive issues may arise, including confusion, poor attention and memory loss. In the early stages, LBD may present as mild forgetfulness; the individual may brush it off as just a part of normal aging. However, as their condition progresses, cognitive impairment will likely affect daily activities and communication.
For some, the onset of movement changes may be an early, noticeable symptom of LBD. Common mobility problems include slowed movement, rigid muscles, tremors, or general loss of balance and coordination. Look for small changes in your loved one like a shuffling walk or even unusual handwriting. Note that if the onset of cognitive symptoms precedes or begins simultaneously with physical symptoms, physicians will lean towards a Lewy body dementia diagnosis.
Individuals with LBD may develop rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder or RBD. With this symptom, the person physically acts out their dreams while asleep. RBD may present as sleep talking, violent movements or falling out of bed. Additionally, excessive daytime sleepiness or insomnia may appear with Lewy body dementia. A sleep study and specialist might be necessary for diagnosing and treating these sleep disorders.
Mood and Behavior Changes
Depression and apathy are common symptoms of LBD. Paranoia and delusions may also occur but could be mistaken for psychiatric disorders. If you or your loved one has persistent feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities, contact their care provider. Be sure to report any other noticeable changes in mood or behavior like increased anxiety or agitation.
Autonomic Nervous System Symptoms
The autonomic nervous system is the control center for unconscious bodily functions. It regulates vital functions like heart rate, digestion, respiration and urination. Unfortunately, this system is frequently disrupted in Lewy body dementia. Symptoms may begin early and include urinary incontinence, changes in body temperature, or constipation. Additionally, sudden drops in blood pressure can occur, leading to dizziness and increased fall risk.
Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosis: Next Steps
In the early stages, symptoms will likely be mild, allowing the individual to function fairly normally. Unfortunately, because many of the signs of Lewy body dementia are similar to other conditions or forms of dementia, it’s often misdiagnosed. This can lead to potentially wrong and harmful medications.
As LBD advances and cognition and mobility decline, your loved one will likely require more help. While there is currently no cure for dementia, some early symptoms of Lewy body dementia could respond to medication and various therapies. If you receive a Lewy body dementia diagnosis, begin researching care and treatment options.
A memory care community can provide around-the-clock care, progressive programming, activities and meal plans specifically geared towards unique needs. Moreover, when your loved one lives in memory care, the staff is trained to notice even slight differences in behaviors or symptom progressions, which can help with a precise Lewy body dementia diagnosis.
Call us today to speak to the expertly-trained staff at our memory care community, Arbor.