Specific dementia diagnosis
Dementia is a broad term for memory loss and the decline of other mental abilities that impact someone’s day-to-day life. There’s no specific test available to determine whether someone has dementia so doctors use a range of resources to help them ascertain the causes and treatment for someone who presents with dementia-like symptoms.
Your loved one’s GP will likely take a thorough medical history, run lab tests and give them a physical examination. These are all used to help understand the changes they’re experiencing in thinking and behaviour - so that their GP might be able to pinpoint if there’s a type of dementia that correlates most closely with their symptoms.
There are several types of dementia, as listed below, and it’s often difficult to get a specific diagnosis of the type of dementia someone has as many of the symptoms overlap. This is why many people are diagnosed just with ‘dementia’, and not a specific type. However, in these cases, it’s important to follow up with a specialist such as a neurologist, who might be able to determine a person’s type of dementia more accurately.
This is particularly important for someone’s own peace of mind to have a better understanding of their disease progression and what to expect. It’s also important because if they’re prescribed medication for dementia, it could have a different effect on them, depending on what kind of dementia they actually have. For example, medication that could potentially help someone with Alzheimer’s may have a more negative effect for someone with Frontotemporal dementia, who might be experiencing hallucinations.
Types of dementia
- Alzheimer's disease
As the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s accounts for roughly 60 – 80% of dementia cases. Symptoms range from difficulty remembering names, events or recent conversations to impaired communication and behavioural changes.
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)
Within a group of rare, fatal brain disorders that affect people and some other mammals, CJD is the most common human form. It’s a rapid disorder with causes memory impairment and behavioural changes.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB)
DLB symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s although early symptoms are more likely to include sleep disturbance and hallucinations.
- Frontotemporal dementia
Common symptoms include personality changes, language difficulty and in some cases, hallucinations.
- Huntington's disease
Typical symptoms include unusual involuntary movements, deteriorated thinking and reasoning skills, irritability and depression.
- Mixed dementia
With this type of dementia, symptoms that are linked to more than one type of dementia are experienced.
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus
These symptoms include trouble with memory loss, walking and difficulty in controlling urination.
- Parkinson's disease
Parkinson’s often presents with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s or DLB.
- Vascular dementia
This accounts for roughly 10% of dementia cases and symptoms include impaired judgement and inability to organise or make decisions.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
This severe memory disorder is caused by a critical vitamin B1 deficiency, usually as a result of alcohol misuse.
If you have a loved one concerned about dementia, it’s important that you both come to expect more from the doctors and specialists you encounter. Request to be given a more definite dementia diagnosis and always ask questions so that you understand why particular medications have been prescribed and how they work differently for one type of dementia to another.
Helping a loved one with dementia can be overwhelming at times but it’s important to get specific information from doctors so that you can understand and interpret symptoms and behaviours better. The more knowledge you’re equipped with, the more understanding you’ll have for how best to care for your friend or family member with dementia.
If you’d like support or further information about dementia, please call our 24-hour Advice Line on 1800 639 331. Please note: we have several facts sheets and resources in our library to assist you.
Words: Ash Anand