What Is Lewy Body Dementia?

This progressive type of dementia can cause problems with memory, vision, and language.

More than six years after his death in 2014, a documentary called "Robin's Wish" revealed details about Robin Williams's final days and aimed to raise awareness for Lewy body dementia (LBD), a progressive form of dementia that Williams was diagnosed with following his death by suicide at the age of 63.

Though dementia, in general, is a well-known term, this specific type—Lewy body dementia—is less understood. Here's what you need to know about progressive brain disease.

What Is Lewy Body Dementia?

Lewy body dementia is one of the most common causes of dementia. The brain disease impacts more than 1 million people in the United States. It typically begins at age 50 years or older, but it can happen in younger people, too.

It's specifically associated with abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain. Those deposits, which are called Lewy bodies, impact chemicals in the brain, which can impact the person's:

  • Memory
  • Language skills
  • Visual perception
  • Problem-solving
  • Ability to perform everyday tasks
  • Ability to focus and pay attention

Although it's known that the cause of Lewy body dementia is a buildup of Lewy bodies, it's unknown why they build up in the brain.

Types of Lewy Body Dementia

There are two types of Lewy body dementia:

Both types of LBD cause similar changes in the brain which lead to similar symptoms. The key difference is when the symptoms start—specifically the cognitive and movement symptoms.

People who have dementia with Lewy bodies will develop cognitive symptoms within a year of the movement symptoms. While in Parkinson's disease dementia, the cognitive symptoms will develop over a year after the movement symptoms start.

Lewy Body Dementia Symptoms

The most common symptoms include changes in thinking, movement, sleep, and behavior. Symptoms specifically can include:

  • A loss of mental function to the point where it impacts the person's daily life and activities
  • Changes in concentration, attention, alertness, and wakefulness
  • Visual hallucinations
  • Problems with movement and posture (slowed movements, difficulty walking, and muscle stiffness)
  • REM sleep behavior disorder—a condition where a person may act out vivid dreaming, talking in their sleep, have violent movements while they sleep, or fall out of bed
  • Changes in behavior and mood, including depression, anxiety, and apathy

As the disease advances, people with Lewy body dementia often depend entirely on other people to care for them.

How Is Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosed?

There isn't any one test to diagnose LBD, and its symptoms can often be confused with those of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Typically, the disease may be diagnosed after:

  • A series of physical and neurological exams
  • Tests to rule out conditions that can cause similar symptoms
  • Neuropsychological tests to evaluate memory and other cognitive functions

Healthcare providers tend to make a specific diagnosis based on when symptoms start. If cognitive issues start within a year of movement problems, they will likely be diagnosed with dementia with Lewy bodies. If the cognitive issues start more than a year after movement problems, the diagnosis is often Parkinson's disease dementia.

Treatment for Lewy Body Dementia

Unfortunately, there isn't a cure for Lewy body dementia. There are, however, certain treatments that may help those diagnosed with Lewy body dementia.

  • Medications can help with cognitive, movement, and psychiatric symptoms.
  • Physical therapy can help with movement problems.
  • Occupational therapy can help people find easier ways to do daily activities.
  • Speech therapy can help with swallowing issues and trouble speaking.
  • Mental health counseling can help with difficult emotions and behaviors.
  • Music or art therapy can help to reduce anxiety and improve overall well-being.

Living With Lewy Body Dementia

Lewy body dementia is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time, and since there isn't a cure, people typically live with the disease for five to eight years after a diagnosis. Some people may live up to 20 years with the condition.

It may be difficult to cope with a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia, but there is support out there. There are support groups for people who have LBD as well as people who care for those with LBD.

A Quick Review

Lewy body dementia is a form of dementia that is caused by a build up of Lewy bodies in the brain. This can cause symptoms that affect things like memory, language skills, and visual perception.

A healthcare provider will diagnose Lewy body dementia through a series of tests and recommend treatment options. There is no cure for LBD, but physical therapy, mental health counseling, and medications can help ease symptoms.

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2 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Aging. What is Lewy body dementia? Causes, symptoms, and treatment.

  2. MedlinePlus. Lewy body dementia.

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