The impacts of dementia on the brain are complex and not fully understood, but as medical researchers and doctors learn more, the medical community has been able to develop more effective methods to support those who are suffering.
Dementia is a degenerative brain condition that affects millions of seniors here in the U.S. and around the world. Although research technology has come a long way in recent years, making it easier than ever before to study the condition, there is still a lot that we just don’t know. Here’s what we do know about the impacts of dementia on the brain.
Types of Dementia
The area of the brain that dementia affects depends largely on the specific variation of dementia that afflicts the patient. There are five primary categories of dementia:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Atypical Alzheimer’s Disease
- Vascular Dementia
- Frontotemporal Dementia
- Dementia with Lewy Bodies
In the sections that follow, we’ll look at the distinctions between the various types of dementia and how each affects the brain. The key differences are often in the earliest symptoms. As the damage spreads later on, the lines blur between the different dementia types.
With Alzheimer’s disease, it is typically the hippocampus that experiences damage first. This area of the brain is responsible for forming new memories. Oftentimes, those suffering from Alzheimer’s have difficulty remembering recent details, like what they ate for breakfast that morning or a conversation with a friend the previous day.
The hippocampus doesn’t play as much of a role in long-term memories so Alzheimer’s sufferers often have vivid recollections of their younger years, even when they can’t remember something that happened an hour ago. One point of interest, though, is that emotional memories are processed through the amygdala, which Alzheimer’s doesn’t affect until the disease has progressed. It is not uncommon for a person with Alzheimer’s to feel an emotional connection to a person or place, even if they can’t remember why.
As the disease progresses, it becomes more difficult for Alzheimer’s sufferers to learn new things, though they typically retain skills learned earlier on, like playing musical instruments. As symptoms become more severe, common tasks that require multiple steps, like cooking and managing finances, present greater challenges.
Atypical Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t always follow a predictable path of progression, leading to a diagnosis of “atypical.” In this rarer form of the disease, the damage doesn’t start in the hippocampus, so the patient may not have any memory issues.
Instead, the early damage may affect the occipital and parietal lobes of the brain. These areas specialize in collecting and interpreting visual data. When this ability is compromised, atypical Alzheimer’s patients may have difficulty with a variety of common activities. Reading is often challenging, even with healthy eyes, and tasks that require spatial awareness, like driving or walking on stairs, can be incredibly difficult.
Coordination is often affected as well. This can make it harder for the person to care for themselves. Tasks like dressing, cooking and completing household chores may no longer be feasible without a bit of help from a caregiver.
Vascular dementia affects the blood flow to the brain. When the brain doesn’t get enough blood, it is unable to extract enough oxygen to function at its optimal level. Over time, this leads to brain damage, but it is difficult to predict the specific areas that will be affected.
Vascular dementia is often the result of a major stroke or of multiple smaller strokes over time. When a stroke occurs, the blood supply to a particular area of the brain is suddenly cut off, causing the tissue to die. The damage is typically evident long after the person has recovered from the stroke.
Vascular dementia sufferers can have difficulties in a wide range of areas of their lives, depending on where the damage is located. Issues with memory, concentration, planning, speech, vision and small motor skills are common.
Frontotemporal dementia involves shrinkage of the frontal lobe, temporal lobe or both. The frontal lobe is responsible for mood and behavior. Damage in this area can cause the patient to become withdrawn or depressed, and they may also have issues with motivation and self-control. It is common for people with frontal lobe damage to repeat themselves when speaking or to repeat similar behaviors.
If the damage starts in the temporal lobes, the symptoms will depend on which side of the brain the damage occurred. The left side of the brain handles speech and language, so the person may have difficulty finding the right words to express their thoughts or may forget the meaning of common words. Right-side damage affects recognition, often of people or familiar objects.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies
Rather than finding damage or shrinkage of the brain, in dementia with Lewy bodies, you’ll see protein deposits throughout the brain. They are typically found in the cerebral cortex, limbic system and brain stem. Vision and attention problems are common in the early stages of this form of dementia and difficulties with movement are also fairly prevalent.
Caring for a Loved One with Dementia
It can be quite challenging to care for a loved one with dementia as the specific symptoms are often difficult to predict. You may notice significant changes from one day to another, with good days interspersed between the difficult ones. It is admirable to want to care for your loved one yourself, but as the disease progresses, your loved one may require professional care to ensure their safety and well-being.
Here at Lakeside Manor, we provide memory care and assisted living services for seniors. Our caregivers are highly trained in working with dementia patients and can give your loved one the care they need. We are always compassionate and caring with our residents and their families. We welcome you to schedule an appointment to visit our facility for a tour. We’ll be happy to answer all of your questions to help you decide if Lakeside Manor is right for your loved one with dementia. Call us today to book your tour.