Alzheimer’s, Vascular or Lewy bodies? Dementia explained


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What is Dementia?

Dementia is caused by diseases which lead to the loss or death of nerve cells in the brain.

The most common causes are Alzheimer’s disease, Vascular Dementia and Dementia with Lewy Bodies.


Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia and is thought to be present in 60% to 80% of cases. Abnormal structures called ‘plaques’ or ‘tangles’ build up inside the brain and disrupt how the nerve cells work and communicate, eventually causing them to die. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet fully understood but our risks of developing this increase with age, family history, untreated depression and lifestyle. There is active research continuing into the condition.

Alzheimer’s is degenerative, so it gets worse over time.

  • The first sign is usually minor memory problems like forgetting the names of places and objects or forgetting recent events.
  • Following this there may be confusion, disorientation, getting lost in familiar places, difficulty planning or making decisions, problems with speech and language and problems with daily tasks.
  • There can also be changes in personality – becoming aggressive, demanding or paranoid – and hallucinations or delusions.

Although there is currently no treatment for Alzheimer’s, it is still important to get a diagnosis so that you can plan and prepare for the future. There is also medication available that can relieve some of the symptoms and psychological treatments that support the memory, problem-solving skills and language. Alzheimer’s can cause problems swallowing which can lead to aspiration (food being inhaled into the lungs) which can cause frequent chest infections.

Vascular Dementia

Vascular Dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. This develops as a result of narrowing and blockage of the small blood vessels in the brain. A single stroke or lots of mini strokes may damage the brain in this way as can lifestyle factors such as smoking and being overweight or having high blood pressure or diabetes.
It tends to get worse over time although it is possible to slow this down. Symptoms include slowness of thought, difficulty with planning and understanding, problems with concentration and mood or personality changes. You may have difficulty walking and keeping balance and feel confused and disoriented.

There is currently no cure for vascular dementia, but treatment can sometimes help slow down the condition. Treatment aims to tackle the underlying cause and often involves eating healthily, losing weight, stopping smoking, getting fit, cutting down on alcohol and taking medication to treat high blood pressure, lower cholesterol or prevent blood clots. Psychological treatment can also help.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB)

Dementia with Lewy Bodies is caused by clumps of protein (Lewy Bodies) forming inside brain cells. Lewy Bodies are also found in people with Parkinson’s disease. Why Lewy Bodies develop is not understood nor is their impact on the brain. It is thought that they interfere with the messaging between brain cells.
Symptoms of DLB included problems with understanding, thinking memory and judgement which are similar to Alzheimer’s disease although the memory may be less affected. There may be periods of fluctuating alertness and drowsiness which can change over hours or days. Movement may be slow and stiff with tremors, there can be fainting spells and falls. Sleep can be disturbed with violent movements and shouting.

Like vascular dementia, there is currently no cure for DLB but there are treatments that can control some of the symptoms. Treatments include medication, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, dementia activities (e.g. Memory Cafes) and psychological therapies.

Further information:

Alzheimer’s Society

Dementia UK

British Heart Foundation

Alzheimer’s Research UK

The Lewy Body Society

Lewy Body Dementia Association