Ever since news broke that Robin Williams was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, people have been wondering about this mysterious disease that is taking over headlines. Renown neurologist J. Ivan Lopez, MD, answers some common questions to help people understand this complicated, often underdiagnosed disease.
Whether you loved him as Mork or Patch Adams — or any of the seemingly countless other characters he brought to life on screen — the death of Robin Williams last year left many feeling they had lost a close friend. And earlier this month, his widow Susan Schneider suggested depression didn’t kill the actor, as initially believed; instead, she said, Lewy Body Dementia did.
While this may have been your first time ever hearing about Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), the disease is actually far from rare. The Lewy Body Dementia Association reports that an estimated 1.4 million individuals and their families in the United States are affected by LBD.
In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic, Lewy Body Dementia is the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Because LBD symptoms can closely resemble other more commonly known diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, it is widely underdiagnosed.
So what exactly is Lewy Body Dementia? We sat down with Renown neurologist J. Ivan Lopez, MD, to answer some common questions.
What is Lewy Body Dementia?
Lewy Body Dementia is a type of dementia that accounts for approximately 20 percent of adult dementia cases. Dementia, in general, is categorized as the progressive and gradual loss of cognitive functions.
“Examples of cognitive functions that dementia patients lose include memory, language, calculation, orientation and abstract thinking,” explains Dr. Lopez.
Lewy Body Dementia gets its name from the abnormal accumulation of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain cells of patients with this type of dementia. These clumps of alpha-synuclein are called Lewy bodies; hence, “Lewy Body” Dementia.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia are cognitive slowing, errors in planning and execution, and spatial disorganization.
“Patients with Lewy Body Dementia may also experience depression, anxiety, and fluctuating levels of alertness,” says Dr. Lopez.
In some cases, patients may experience visual hallucinations and, on occasion, symptoms similar to patients with Parkinson’s Disease, including slowness of movements, rigidity and falls.
What are the causes of the disease?
Some scientists believe that the accumulation of Lewy bodies is responsible for the symptoms of the disease, but the exact cause is still unknown.
“We are uncertain regarding the reason as to why some people develop Lewy Body Dementia,” explains Dr. Lopez.
“There may be a genetic component to the disease,” continues Dr. Lopez, “but we don’t currently know of any risk factors other than age. LBD usually, not always, appears in individuals over the age of 60.”
How is Lewy Body Dementia diagnosed?
The diagnosis is made by taking a careful history and performing a neurological exam that confirms the presence of progressive decline of cognitive functions, particularly in the attention, drive (planning and execution) and visuospatial domains — or the skills that allow us to visually perceive objects and the spatial relationships between them.
“Unlike patients with Alzheimer’s disease, patients with Lewy Body Dementia may have intact memory until later stages of the disease,” Dr. Lopez explains. “That is why a comprehensive and careful examination is critical.”
What is the prognosis?
Currently, there is no cure for LBD, and patients with the disease will continue to deteriorate over time.
“Symptoms can be treated to an extent, so early detection is helpful,” Dr. Lopez shares. “But unfortunately, treating the symptoms is all we can do at this time.”
To learn more about Lewy Body Dementia, visit the Lewy Body Dementia Association. To speak with a Renown neurologist, visit our Institute for Neurosciences here.