sailor girlWhat is Lewy body disease?

This sheet tells you about a condition called Lewy body disease which is a cause of dementia very similar to Alzheimer's disease. It differs both in the precise nature of the symptoms and in the damage that is found in the brain after death.

There is no cure or treatment specifically for Lewy body disease. However, other drugs may help with some of the symptoms.

What is Lewy body disease?

Lewy body disease is a dementia which is caused by damage in the brain. It is similar to Alzheimer's disease, but symptoms are typically different on close examination, with different signs found in the brain after death. The cause is unknown.

Lewy body disease has relatively recently been accepted as a separate disease in its own right.
The disease gets its name because of the deposits which are found in the brain after death (named after the doctor who first wrote about them). Lewy bodies are round deposits which contain damaged nerve cells. They are probably formed as the cells try to protect themselves from attack.

It is increasingly important to diagnose such conditions accurately as new drugs are developed which may be more effective in some types of dementia than in others.

What are the symptoms?

  • The dementia associated with Lewy body disease affects:
  •    memory
  •    language
  •    the ability to judge distances
  •    the ability to carry out simple actions
  •    the ability to reason.

  • People with this form of dementia suffer hallucinations ­ for example seeing a person or pet on a bed or a chair when nothing is there.

    They may suffer from falls for no apparent reason, because their ability to judge distances and make movements and actions accurately is disrupted.

    They may develop some Parkinson type symptoms such as slowness of movement, stiffness and tremor. In a few cases heart rate and blood pressure are affected.

    The abilities of the affected person often fluctuate from hour to hour, and over weeks and months. This sometimes causes carers to think that the person is 'putting on' their confusion.

    What diagnostic tests are there?

    The main tool in diagnosing this form of dementia is by taking a careful history of the pattern of symptoms, and by excluding other possible causes such as vascular dementia. A scan may reveal degeneration of the brain, but the Lewy bodies can only be discovered after death.

    You may see the condition described as cortical Lewy body disease. This is because Lewy bodies may also be found in a different area of the brain (the brain stem) in people who have Parkinson's disease but no extensive dementia. In fact Lewy bodies are also sometimes found in the brains of people who have Alzheimer's disease, and it is possible that some people suffer from both conditions.

    Is treatment possible?

    There is no cure for Lewy body disease, and it usually ends in death, often progressing more quickly than Alzheimer's. Some people respond to the dopamine replacement drugs which are used to treat Parkinson's disease ­ particularly if there are Parkinsonian symptoms.

    It is important that people with Lewy body disease avoid neuroleptic tranquilliser drugs, which can cause severe side-effects, or even death.

    Although there is no cure, there are grounds for hope that drugs will be developed to delay the onset of symptoms in a significant proportion of patients.

    As with other dementias, there are strategies for daily life which can help in the early stages. These include keeping to a set routine, providing written or 'alarm call' reminders and providing reassurance. Speech and language therapists can help people who are having difficulty in finding the right words or in following conversations. As the condition deteriorates these strategies become less effective.

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