How Long Can You Live with Dementia?
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Life Expectancy with Dementia
The life expectancy for someone living with dementia greatly varies depending on the person and his or her individual case. Because dementia in and of itself is not a disease but rather the name for a group of symptoms caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, you can’t attach a one-size-fits-all life expectancy to it.
Similar to cancer, there are many types of dementia, many types of people who are diagnosed with it and, therefore, many paths the disease can take. Some live for only a couple of years after their diagnosis. Some live for 20 years or more.
While you can’t stamp a specific life expectancy on dementia, you can look at factors that affect life expectancy for those living with dementia, which includes preexisting health conditions and the type of dementia someone has.
What affects your life expectancy with dementia?
A number of factors affect someone’s life expectancy who is living with dementia, including:
1. What type of dementia you have
We get into this more below, but every type of dementia has a slightly different average life expectancy. This is because each type affects the brain and body differently. Some types of dementia allow you to live longer while others progress more quickly.
2. Pre-existing health conditions
If someone is diagnosed with dementia who already has diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, he will have a lower life expectancy because these other illnesses can affect the progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s and put him at higher risk for other medical complications.
Because older adults (age 65 and above) are more likely to have other preexisting conditions, their life expectancy is lower than someone who is diagnosed at a younger age and has better general health.
(The exception to this would be with frontotemporal dementia, which I explain below.)
Some research suggests women may live longer than men with dementia.
5. Stage of disease at time of diagnosis
What is the life expectancy for different types of dementia?
1. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It’s caused by abnormal proteins in the brain that cause damage to the cells affecting cognitive and physical functions.
The life expectancy for someone with Alzheimer’s disease is eight to 12 years from the time of diagnosis, though people have lived up to 26 years after their diagnosis.
The earlier you are diagnosed, the longer your life expectancy is. However, most people with Alzheimer’s are not diagnosed until the mild dementia stage when symptoms have become more apparent.
2. Vascular dementia
Vascular dementia is a type of dementia caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, usually caused by a stroke, a series of ministrokes or another heart condition. Vascular dementia often accompanies Alzheimer’s disease, or what’s known as “mixed dementia.”
Only 5-10% of vascular dementia cases are only vascular dementia. Most cases are mixed dementia.
The life expectancy for someone with vascular dementia is four years. This is lower than Alzheimer’s because someone with vascular dementia is at risk of having another stroke or heart attack.
3. Lewy body dementia
Lewy body dementia is caused by abnormal deposits of protein in the brain, known as Lewy bodies. This type of dementia can affect a person’s movements, making her more susceptible to falls, which can greatly affect an older adult’s overall health. Because of this, the life expectancy for someone with Lewy body dementia is about six years.
4. Frontotemporal dementia
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) covers any type of dementia that primarily affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which are the areas of the brain associated with personality, language and behavior. The average life expectancy for someone with this type of dementia is about eight years.
However, frontotemporal dementia is often diagnosed in younger people and the disease actually progresses more quickly if you receive a diagnosis at a younger age.
Some people with FTD are also diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). If this is the case, their life expectancy is shorter, about two to three years after diagnosis.
What to do if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia
It’s understandable that if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia your first question would be about life expectancy. And while resources like this article can be helpful, we must further emphasize that life expectancies greatly vary. Talk to your doctor or neurologist to get a better picture of your diagnosis and how to live with the best quality of life possible.
In addition, getting your affairs in order as early as possible is critical when dealing with a dementia diagnosis. Talk to a lawyer or legal advisor about setting up a Power of Attorney and Advance Directive to make sure everyone in your family knows who is responsible for what and to ensure your or your loved one’s finances are in order.
Finally, consider talking to a counselor. This can be especially helpful for those living with dementia in the early stages. This can also be helpful for caregivers and family members. To learn more about how to find a therapist who specializes in dementia care, visit the Alzheimer’s Association here.
While the life expectancy for dementia varies, one fact is true for everyone living with dementia: research continues to make advancements in medication, prevention and care for those with dementia or for those who are at risk for developing dementia.
So while there isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia, there is hope.