The relative frequency of "dementia of unknown etiology" increases with age and is nearly 50% in nonagenarians

Arch Neurol. 2000 May;57(5):713-9. doi: 10.1001/archneur.57.5.713.


Context: With the recent change in pathological criteria for Alzheimer disease (AD), a group of patients has emerged who do not meet pathological criteria for any well-characterized degenerative dementias. Whether these unclassified patients have vascular dementia or some other form of dementia is not known.

Objective: To determine the clinical characteristics, pathological substrate, and relative frequency of dementia not caused by well-characterized degenerative dementias.

Design/setting: Clinicopathological study of a prospectively observed sample of elderly nondemented and demented subjects recruited from our urban community.

Methods: In our series of 128 subjects with prospective neuropsychological evaluations as well as neuropathology, we identified 35 clinically nondemented subjects and 20 demented patients who did not meet pathological criteria for well-characterized degenerative dementias such as AD or dementia with Lewy bodies. The 20 demented patients were grouped together under the term dementia of unknown etiology (DUE). We compared clinical, genetic, neuropsychological, pathological, and neurochemical characteristics of the nondemented group, patients with DUE, and 28 patients with AD and no other pathological abnormality.

Results: Mean age at death for patients with DUE was 89.1 +/- 5.8 years compared with 79.9 +/- 11.4 years for AD (P<.001). Patients with AD and DUE did not differ in sex, risk factors, apolipoprotein E genotype, neuropsychological features, or neurological features. Hippocampal sclerosis (in 11 patients with dementia and no controls) and leukoencephalopathy (in 7 patients with dementia and 1 control) were associated with cognitive impairment; other vascular markers were not. Dementia of unknown etiology accounted for 5% of all cases of dementia among patients dying in their 70s, 21% for patients dying in their 80s, and 48% for patients dying in their 90s.

Conclusions: A significant percentage of demented patients older than 80 years do not meet pathological criteria for AD or dementia with Lewy bodies. Hippocampal sclerosis and leukoencephalopathy are common in these patients but rare in clinically nondemented subjects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Dementia / diagnosis
  • Dementia / epidemiology*
  • Dementia / etiology*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neurofibrillary Tangles / pathology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Sclerosis / pathology