What You Need To Know About 5 Kinds Of Dementia That Aren’t Alzheimer’s

There’s a reason so many of us are guilty of using the word “Alzheimer’s” to describe any and all cognitive decline: Somewhere between 60 and 80% of all dementia cases are due to the disease, which affects an estimated 5.3 million Americans.

Understandably, it’s a major area of research, since we still don’t totally understand the brain changes believed to cause Alzheimer’s disease. The hallmark symptoms—difficulty remembering names, conversations, and recent events—are thought to be due to plaques(a buildup of pieces of a protein called beta-amyloid), and tangles, which are twisted pieces of another protein called tau. As the disease progresses, it can lead to difficulty communicating, behavior and judgment changes, and even trouble swallowing or walking.

Some of a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia comes down to an unlucky genetic hand. Luckily, quintessentially healthy habits—keeping weight and blood pressure in check, quitting smoking, following a Mediterranean diet—that ward off any number of other diseases might help us prevent cognitive decline, too. “Preventing memory loss comes down to trying to have a healthy, well-balanced life,” says Deniz Erten-Lyons, MD, associate professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University and the director of the Clinical Care and Therapeutics Program at OHSU’s Layton Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

When it comes time for care rather than prevention, a doctor will first rule out underlying treatable causes of a faltering memory, which can include vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, and liver or kidney disease. In many of these cases, dementia-like effects are reversible with treatment, Erten-Lyons says. In rare cases, autoimmune diseases and even infections like syphilis or HIV can lead to some memory changes, as can strokes or tumors, which are ruled out with brain scans.

Those imaging tests also help doctors recognize patterns of brain shrinkage, which may or may not point to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. While it’s by far the most frequent cause of dementia, it’s not the only one. Here are a few of the other types you should know about—and how to keep yourself healthy.

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