Some say that if you put Alzheimer’s disease (AD), Parkinson’s disease (PD) and schizophrenia in a bag and shake them up, you’ll get Lewy body dementia (LBD). But that’s not all; add sleeping disorders and autonomic nervous system dysfunctions and you’ll be closer to describing this multifaceted disorder. However, today we’ll only talk about the first three and save the others for later.
LBD is similar to Alzheimer's, in that it is a loss of cognitive abilities. However, AD folks tend to lose memory skills first. They forget words and things. LBD folks lose executive skills first. They become unable to think, do sequential tasks, plan, or make decisions, judgments or choices. Even more important, LBD folks may have severe drug sensitivities to drugs that Alzheimers folks can usually take with comparative safety.
Concern: These two dementias often occur together. Since AD is most common, someone with both disorders will most likely be diagnosed first with Alzheimers. Thus LBD’s severe drug sensitivities may not be discovered until the damage is done.
Update: This is still true. Many family practitioners especially, view all dementias as very similar and see little need to burden their patients with the time, effort and money involved with a referral to a specialist. Insist on seeing a neurologist who specializes in dementia or a geriatric psychiatrist.
LBD is related to Parkinson's. There are two types of LBD. Like PD, both are caused by Lewy bodies in the brain. When dementia starts first, this is called Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). They may never have major mobility problems and are the ones most likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. People who develop PD first and then go on to develop dementia symptoms are said to have Parkinson’s disease with dementia (PDD).
Concern: Drugs that improve mobility decrease cognition. When a person has PD, they usually see a movement specialist who may view the dementia as an unavoidable symptom of advanced Parkinsons rather than a possible side effect of the PD drugs. When given a choice, caregivers will almost always chose cognition over mobility for their loved ones, even when it means more work for them. They may not get this choice with a movement specialist.
Update: PD specialists are much more aware of the dementia and drug sensitive issues than they were two years ago. For one thing new research is showing that mild cognitive impairment is actually present at PD diagnosis 25% of the time. Identifying this makes the need family oriented preventative care all the more important. Avoiding Lewy-dangerous drugs, managing stress and living a generally healthy lifestyle can greatly extend the time before dementia.
LBD is sometimes compared to schizophrenia because perceptual dysfunctions like hallucinations and delusions are so common and because they tend to very start early in the disease process. In fact they may be the first dementia symptoms, although they are seldom recognized as such until other more cognitive symptoms such as the loss of executive skills appear. One big difference is that people with schizophrenia often hear voices telling them what to do, while LBD hallucinations almost never include voices at all.
Concern: When acting-out behaviors start before more recognizable dementia symptoms, people may see a psychiatrist first. The behavior management drugs most used by psychiatrists are those most dangerous to LBD folks. Even one dose may cause serious, permanent motor or cognitive problems.
Update: Clinicians have now formally identified a type of LBD that starts with behavioral problems like hallucinations and delusions. Families with someone who begins to show such symptoms in their 50s or later should consider LBD even if no other symptoms are present.
The bottom line is that when any of the above symptoms are present, everyone involved should be aware that LBD could also be present, no matter what a person’s diagnosis. If you are wrong, no harm is done. If you are right, you may avoid the damage that can come with LBD’s drug sensitivities. You may also be able to identify “inappropriate behavior” that is alienating co-workers, family and friends as possible early LBD related acting-out behavior. Naturally, you should share your observations and concerns with your loved one’s physician and if appropriate, ask for a referral to a dementia specialist.
Update: The bottom line hasn’t changed.
Find more about LBD in The Caregiver's Guide to Lewy Body Dementia available on LBDtools.com in the LBD Book Corner.