The presence of Lewy bodies – abnormal brain deposits composed of several proteins located throughout the brain, is the post-mortem diagnostic hallmark. Dementia with Lewy bodies is a rapidly progressing disease. Death usually occurs within five to seven years of diagnosis.
Unlike Alzheimer's Disease, Dementia with Lewy bodies does not have predictable stages. Early symptoms of the disease vary. Some people first experience cognitive and memory changes similar to those associated with early Alzheimer's Disease. For other people, first symptoms may include shaking and a shuffling gait. Sometimes hallucinations are a first symptom. Therefore, a thorough medical exam plays an important role in ruling out other causes such as Parkinson's Disease or the side effects of medications used to treat other illnesses and conditions.
Responses to the medications used to treat or reduce the severity of hallucinations can inadvertently confirm a diagnosis of Dementia with Lewy bodies. Unlike people who have Alzheimer's Disease, people who have symptoms commonly associated with Dementia with Lewy bodies can have dangerous, and sometimes fatal reactions to antipsychotic medications such as haloperidol (Haldol) and risperidone (Risperdal). (See References 1 and 2 below.) This finding points to the importance of keeping detailed medical history notes and prescription records. This is especially true for first-time appointments and in the emergency room.
Lewy bodies are also found in other brain disorders such as Parkinson's Disease. Many people who have Parkinson's Disease eventually develop the thinking and reasoning difficulties associated with Dementia with Lewy bodies. Conversely, many people who have Dementia with Lewy bodies experience the shaking and shuffling gait associated with Parkinson's Disease. The overlap in symptoms and other evidence suggest that Dementia with Lewy bodies, Parkinson's Disease and Parkinson's Disease Dementia may share underlying abnormalities.
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Janet Yagoda Shagam, PhD, is a freelance medical and science writer and the author of “An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.” Available through Amazon.
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Source 1, accessed March 6th, 2016
Source 2, accessed March 15th, 2016