All types of dementia are progressive, though the rate at which symptoms intensify varies with the kind of dementia. The rate of progression may also differ from person to person.

Generally, a person experiences more issues with memory, thinking, problem-solving, and language as symptoms grow in severity.

In the United States, the most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that the condition affects around 6.7 million people in the U.S. ages 65 and older. Females tend to have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than males. Almost two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. are female.

This article explores the different types of progressive dementias, including their symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment. It also discusses when to speak with a doctor.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Because people commonly associate dementia with Alzheimer’s disease and older people, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) has updated the clinical term to “major neurocognitive disorder.” However, this article will use the term dementia.

All dementias are progressive. This means symptoms will worsen with time. Causes of different types of dementia generally involve proteins building up in the brain.

The exception to this is vascular dementia. A stroke causes this type of dementia.


The different types of progressive dementias include:

A person can receive a mixed dementia diagnosis. For example, they may have both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Rapidly progressive dementias intensify with time over a shorter period in comparison with other dementias. A doctor may diagnose rapidly progressive dementia if a person’s symptoms noticeably become more severe within 1–2 years.

Generally, researchers associate rapidly progressive dementia with prion diseases, such as CJD. While they do not usually consider Alzheimer’s disease a rapidly progressive dementia, some subtypes are.

Most of the different types of progressive dementia share similar symptoms.

Signs and symptoms associated with dementia include:

  • memory loss
  • impaired judgment
  • confusion
  • getting lost in a familiar environment
  • losing the ability to pay bills and handle money responsibly
  • repeating questions
  • finding it challenging to find words for familiar objects
  • taking longer than usual to do routine tasks
  • hallucinations
  • delusions
  • paranoia
  • acting on impulse
  • a lack of awareness of other people’s feelings
  • issues with coordination, balance, and movement

Dementia develops when neurons, or nerve cells, in specific areas of the brain stop working as well as they used to. This is usually due to a buildup of proteins in the brain. Researchers have also associated changes in specific brain regions with different types of dementia.

Rapidly progressive dementia is often associated with prion disease and brain injury.

It can also occur as a complication of slower-progressing dementia. For example, if someone has Alzheimer’s disease and then experiences a seizure, their symptoms may suddenly begin to progress at a faster rate than before.

Conditions that typically cause rapidly progressive dementia symptoms include:

To diagnose dementia, a doctor may use a range of diagnostic tools, including:

  • Cognitive tests: These assess a person’s memory, problem-solving, and language skills.
  • Neurological tests: These assessments aim to gauge how well a person’s sensory responses, reflexes, and balance skills are functioning.
  • Brain scans: These reveal changes in brain structure or obstructions that could be causing dementia symptoms. They may include CT, X-ray, MRI, and PET scans.
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tests: A CSF test may help detect some proteins and other components associated with dementia.
  • Blood tests: Depending on which state a person lives in, their doctor may be able to order a blood test to analyze their beta-amyloid protein levels. These proteins are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. However, this test alone cannot diagnose Alzheimer’s.
  • Genetic testing: Some genes can increase a person’s risk of dementia. A genetic test reveals if a person with suspected dementia has these genes.
  • Psychiatric evaluation: During this, a psychiatrist aims to confirm whether dementia may be contributing to changes in a person’s behavior. It is not unusual for people to have dementia and depression or another mental health condition at the same time.

Learn more about tests for dementia.

There is no cure for dementia. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved some medications that may help slow cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Lifestyle modifications may also help people manage symptoms.

Treatments for rapidly progressive dementias may differ. For example, healthcare professionals will focus on making individuals with CJD and other prion diseases feel comfortable and minimizing their symptoms. This is because research indicates that no specific therapy stops the progression of these conditions.

Cholinesterase inhibitors

Cholinesterase inhibitors help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in memory and attention.

Some cholinesterase inhibitor medications include:

N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonists

Memantine is an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) antagonist that doctors prescribe to treat dementia.

It aims to decrease the activity of glutamate, a type of amino acid. However, healthcare professionals do not know the exact mechanisms of how memantine works to slow the progression of symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Lifestyle factors

It is important to consider that cholinesterase inhibitors and NMDA antagonists often have a small positive impact on a person’s treatment.

For this reason, it is not uncommon for people to focus on improving lifestyle factors to help maintain their cognitive functioning.

This may include:

For other dementias, such as vascular dementia, some drugs for Alzheimer’s may be beneficial. Treating the underlying causes and conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, may help prevent additional strokes and further brain damage.

Learn more about medication for dementia.

If there is a change in a person’s symptoms, or someone suspects a family member or friend may have dementia, it is best to speak with a doctor as soon as possible. From there, they can find out more about diagnosis, treatment, care, and additional support.

A diary or record of any changes in behavior can be helpful for a doctor to see, as it gives them an indication of how symptoms are changing with time.

Alzheimer’s and dementia resources

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for Alzheimer’s and dementia, visit our dedicated hub.

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All types of dementia are progressive. However, the rate at which symptoms progress can vary depending on the type of dementia a person has.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It generally affects the parts of the brain responsible for thought, language, and memory. Although there is currently no cure for dementia, there are treatments that aim to help slow the rate of symptom progression.

People may also choose to focus on improving lifestyle factors to manage their symptoms. This includes eating a healthy diet, sleeping well, social stimulation, and memory training. It is best for people to speak with a healthcare professional if they suspect they or a loved one may be experiencing dementia.