Lewy Body Dementia

Lewy body dementia is a common degenerative and progressive brain disease. Learn how Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Neuroscience Center and the Fleming Memory Center at LVH–17th Street can help you and your family.

Lewy body dementia, a degenerative brain disease, is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. People with Lewy body dementia have an accumulation of abnormal protein particles called Lewy bodies in their brain tissue. Lewy bodies also are found in the brain tissue of people with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, but in different parts of the brain. Lewy body dementia was first recognized as a diagnosis in the 1980s.

More than one million people in the United States are affected by Lewy body dementia. Because the signs and symptoms of Lewy body dementia resemble those of other forms of dementia, the actual number is likely higher. It generally appears between the ages of 50 to 85 but has been seen in younger people. Men are affected by Lewy body dementia slightly more often than women. If you have a family member with Lewy body dementia, you are at a somewhat increased risk.

Signs of Lewy body dementia

According to the National Institute on Aging, Lewy body dementia has three features that distinguish it from other forms of dementia:

  • Fluctuations in mental functioning, particularly alertness and attention.
  • Recurrent visual hallucinations, sometimes resembling delirium.
  • Movement symptoms similar to those of Parkinson’s disease, such as rigidity and lack of spontaneous movement.
  • Compared with other forms of dementia, memory problems often occur later in the progression of Lewy body dementia.

What causes Lewy body dementia?

Lewy body dementia is caused by degeneration of brain tissue. Lewy bodies in the brain affect substances called neurotransmitters, chemicals that help transmit signals from one nerve cell to another. Lewy bodies interfere with the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps transmit signals that cause muscle movement.

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter found in the parts of the brain responsible for memory, thinking and processing information. When Lewy bodies build up in these areas, they use up the acetylcholine, causing symptoms of dementia.

Diagnosis and next steps

Lewy body dementia has no cure, so treatment involves addressing the symptoms. Medications, supportive care, physical therapy and behavioral interventions can be helpful.

An individual with Lewy body dementia may need monitoring and assistance at home or in an institution. Options include home care, boarding homes, adult day care and convalescent or long-term care facilities (nursing homes). At a later stage, hospice care is an option families may consider.

Advance directives, power of attorney and other legal actions may make it easier to decide about the care of the person with dementia. Legal advice should be sought early before the person with dementia is unable to make such decisions.

The Fleming Memory Center at Lehigh Valley Hospital–17th Street offers care and support for people affected by dementia and their families. LVHN also offers a support group for the adult children of parents with Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss. Family counseling can help family members cope.