Lewy body dementia is a particular form of dementia, characterized by abnormal brain cells called Lewy bodies. The disease gets its unusual name from its discoverer, Dr. Levi of Germany, who uncovered the disease in 1912. “Levi” was changed to “Lewy” in the English translation. Lewy body dementia is one of the most common forms of dementia, occurring in 15% or more of all cases. However, the general public and even some health professionals are not as familiar with the disease as they are with better-known dementias like Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at this time don’t know why Lewy bodies form. They are made up of alpha-synuclein protein, which is also connected to Parkinson’s disease and other disorders. Indeed, Parkinson’s disease patients and Lewy Body dementia sufferers display similar symptoms, especially in later stages of the disease. Lewy bodies collect in the nuclei of the neurons that help manage motor control and memory. They can accumulate by themselves, but they also sometimes appear in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Because it is easily confused with similar diseases, Lewy Body dementia is under-diagnosed. However, seeking a diagnosis is critical, as it can lead to proper care that will make a real difference in quality of life and the length of time the patient is able to maintain their independence.
Unlike Alzheimer’s, in which the disease eventually kills most of the victim’s neurons, in Lewy Body dementia the patient only loses 10 to 15% of neurons, though other areas of the brain are damaged as well. Lewy Body dementia tends to affect different areas of the brain than Alzheimer’s does. The disease interferes with language, memory, and higher-level mental functions. Lewy body dementia also often occurs in connection with anxiety and depression.
As with other forms of dementia, there is no cure currently available. Doctors will prescribe various medications to treat the different symptoms, however. Drugs like rivastigmine and donepezil are used to treat cognitive problems, and may also help with motor control and psychiatric issues. Motor control can also be helped by levodopa. Drugs that treat hallucinations however usually are not used since there’s the possibility they could make motor control issues worse. The life expectancy for someone with the disease is about eight years.
Lewy body dementia is an area of active government-funded research, with the immediate goal of better understanding what causes the disease. Scientists hope to eventually discover ways to treat it, prevent it and cure it.