Alzheimer’s disease is one of the more serious chronic health conditions that seniors can face. In fact, the impact the ailment can have not just on older adults, but on family members, caregivers and health care providers as well, has elevated Alzheimer’s to a catch-all term that encompasses any and all type of cognitive decline, at least when people speak about it casually.
The truth, however, is that while Alzheimer’s is a serious cognitive condition, and while the Alzheimer’s Association indicates that it currently affects about 5 million Americans, associating any type of cognitive illness or dementia with Alzheimer’s is a mistake. One condition in particular, known as Lewy body dementia, has been confused with Alzheimer’s so often that it’s actually been underdiagnosed in years past. Understanding what LBD is, and how it differs from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, is important for providing seniors with proper care.
What is LBD?
According to the Lewy Body Dementia Association, LBD is actually a term that refers to two separate but similar conditions. The source noted that the reason the diagnosis is shared is because both presentations – Parkinson’s disease dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies – effect the same type of change in the brain, despite having different symptoms at their onset. The disease currently affects around 1.4 million Americans, though the source estimates that there are likely more individuals who have the condition and have not received a proper diagnosis. In fact, LBD is the second-leading cause of dementia. Unfortunately, its symptoms, diagnosis and treatment are still misunderstood by many, including health care providers.
How is it different?
Like Alzheimer’s, LBD is a form of dementia that affects the cognitive ability of the person living with it. Due to this similarity, as well as the prevalence of Alzheimer’s – a disease which affects nearly five times as many people – it’s not uncommon for doctors to misdiagnose LBD as Alzheimer’s. However, the two different conditions not only affect the brain in different ways, but also display somewhat different symptoms.
As the LBDA pointed out, Alzheimer’s affects the brain’s ability to store new information in the form of memories, which accounts for the condition’s characteristic memory loss. Lewy body dementia, on the other hand, targets a different set of cognitive functions – specifically problem-solving and reasoning. While there are tests that can more conclusively determine the presence of these conditions, in general, both Alzheimer’s and LBD are diagnosed through observation and tracking how symptoms progress.
The Alzheimer’s Association indicated the 10 warning signs that may indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s, which include things like memory loss that is disruptive to daily life, as well as confusion relating to perception of time and place. As the LBDA noted, progressive dementia is also the central feature and most prominent symptom of Lewy body dementia, though the organization did say that cognitive symptoms may not be present in the condition’s early stages. The differences between Alzheimer’s and LBD are subtle but significant. For example, in addition to cognitive impairment, LBD can also manifest through frequent disruption to REM sleep cycles. Depending on the type of LBD, features similar to Parkinson’s disease can also appear, which is another factor contributing to misdiagnosis.
The importance of getting it right
Any chronic condition requires accurate and expedient care, however this is especially true of LBD. According to the LBDA, individuals with this ailment can be more sensitive to certain medications than those with other types of dementia, leading to fewer drug treatments that are actually effective. Identifying the presence of Lewy body dementia early and, importantly, correctly is essential to stopping the progression of symptoms.