Overview and Facts
Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder that affects the brain. Named for German physician Alois Alzheimer, it is a progressive and fatal brain disease that destroys brains cells, causing memory loss. It is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50-80% of dementia cases. Dementia is the general term that describes a condition in which memory loss is serious enough to interrupt daily life.
The problems Alzheimer’s triggers with thinking and behavior are severe enough to affect work, hobbies and socialization. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time, and it is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.
Signs and Symptoms
There are ten main warning signs of Alzheimer’s. These signs are absolutely critical in detecting Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Memory loss that disrupts life. Memory loss is one of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s, and memory loss that affects daily life is not a typical part of the aging process. It especially pertains to forgetting recently learned information. Other signs are asking for the same information repeatedly, forgetting important dates and relying on memory aides.
2. Difficulty planning or solving problems. People may have trouble working with numbers, keeping track of bills or developing a plan for something. Difficulty concentrating and taking a longer time to do things is also a sign of Alzheimer’s.
3. Trouble completing familiar tasks. Completing daily tasks is one thing that becomes increasingly difficult for people with Alzheimer’s. This includes driving to locations they are familiar with, remembering where things are or dealing with finances.
4. Confusion with time or place. Losing track of dates and times is common with Alzheimer’s disease. People may forget where they are or how they got there.5. Difficulty with visual images and spatial relationships. Vision problems are common with Alzheimer’s. People might have trouble with color, reading or judging distance.6. Problems with words. Being a part of a conversation may become difficult – people may repeat themselves or get stuck without something to say. Struggles with vocabulary and word choice are common as well.7. Misplacement of items. People suffering from Alzheimer’s may put things in unusual places and be unable to find them again.8. Poor judgment. It is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease for people to exhibit poor judgment in terms of decision making. They may pay less attention to personal hygiene or make bad monetary decisions.9. Withdrawal from work or social activities. Someone with Alzheimer’s may slowly cease participation in their hobbies, work or other social activities. The changes that result from Alzheimer’s may cause people to avoid being social in general because of what they are experiencing.10. Changes in personality and mood. People with Alzheimer’s can become easily confused, depressed, suspicious or anxious. When they are out of their comfort zone, they can become easily upset.There are seven stages of Alzheimer’s that an individual can progress through:
- Stage 1: No impairment. Functions as a normal, no memory loss.
- Stage 2: Mild cognitive decline. Individuals may have slight memory loss and lapses, though not evident to family/friends or during a medical exam. These signs, however, could be related to age.
- Stage 3:Mild cognitive decline. Family/friends begin to notice memory lapse. Problems with memory may be measurable during a medical exam.
- Stage 4: Moderate cognitive decline. This could be mild or early-stage Alzheimer’s. In this stage, a medical exam will show clear cut deficiencies such as reduced memory of personal history and decreased knowledge of recent events.
- Stage 5: Moderately severe cognitive decline. This can be moderate or mid-stage Alzheimer’s. Characterized by major memory caps and deficits in cognitive function.
- Stage 6: Severe cognitive decline. This stage is considered moderately severe or mid-stage Alzheimer’s. Memory progressively gets worse and personality changes may start to show.
- Stage 7: Very severe cognitive decline. Stage 7 is severe or late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. This is the final stage in which individuals lose the ability to respond, speak and control movement.
Causes and Diagnosis
It is clear that Alzheimer’s disease is a disease that involves progressive brain cell failure. However, scientists have not identified any one cause as to why brain cells fail. It is likely a combination of genetics and other factors.
Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease:
- Age – the risk increases with age
- Gender – Alzheimer’s more frequently affects women
- Family history – though history can play a role, fewer than 1% of Alzheimer’s cases are inherited and they are mostly cases that onset before age 65
- Head injuries – there is a strong link between significant head injuries and Alzheimer’s
- Heart disease – diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other heart diseases can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is complex. It is important to properly diagnose because while some disorders that can cause dementia symptoms are curable, Alzheimer’s is not. Identifying early signs of Alzheimer’s helps to get a diagnosis and also gives the family time to plan for the future.
To diagnose, a doctor will evaluate the patient’s history, from past medical conditions to medications to family history. A doctor will also likely perform a very brief test called a mini-mental state exam. This test is used to assess medical function. It tests a person’s memory, problem solving skills and attention span and can give a doctor insight as to whether or not brain cells have started to fail. Other things that could be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s include:
- Lab tests
- Physical exam
- Diagnostic tests
- Mini-cog test
- Chest X-ray
- Neurological exam
- Brain imaging
Tests and Treatment Options
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But, there are treatments for Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s treatments consist of both drug and non-drug treatments that can help aid cognitive and behavioral and psychiatric symptoms, the two categories of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease: cognitive symptoms. There are two types of medications that can treat cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Both of these drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Cholinesterase inhibitors – these prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that is important in learning and memory.
- Memantine – this works in the body by regulating activity of glutamate, another messenger chemical involved in learning and memory.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease: behavioral and psychiatric symptoms. There are two approaches for treatment for behavioral and psychiatric symptoms, drug and non-drug treatments.
- Non-drug treatments – non-drug Alzheimer’s treatments are done with the intention of creating an environment where the person feels comfortable and at ease. Certain situations such as moving, being asked to do things or other changes in daily life can affect behavior.
- Create a calm environment for the person
- Don’t be confrontational or argue about facts that may be inaccurate
- Allow ample resting time between events the person is participating in
- Put security locks on doors and gates
- Drug treatments – if non-drug Alzheimer’s treatments do not work and symptoms are severe, medications may be introduced to the treatment. Different types of medication may be appropriate for different people, depending on their Alzheimer’s symptoms. Types of medication may include:
- Antidepressant medications for low mood
- Anxiolytics for anxiety, verbally disruptive behavior and resistance
- Antipsychotic medications for hallucinations, aggression and hostility
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
Because Alzheimer’s disease is largely related to age, it is hard to completely prevent. Living a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk, because a healthy body keeps the brain healthy, too. Maintaining a healthy weight, being active, avoiding smoking and exercising both body and mind can help. Also, studies have shown that elderly people who participate in regular leisure activities such as playing games, reading or dancing may have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.