What Is Alzheimer's Disease? Know the Signs & Treatment
Alzheimer's disease is a serious condition that can lead to impairments in cognition, memory, and self-care. Former President Ronald Reagan, country singer Glen Campbell, and actor Charlton Heston were all affected by this disease. According to health experts, more than 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Understanding the signs and symptoms of this disease is important for baby boomers and their families.
What Is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain disorder that causes irreversible changes in memory and thinking. Most people who suffer from this condition display the first symptoms in their mid to late 60s. Treatments are available that can help people cope with the disease, but doctors don't know how to stop it altogether. Alzheimer's is a type of dementia. Dementia is the wider name for a condition that causes the loss of the ability to think, remember, and reason correctly.
A doctor named Alois Alzheimer first discovered the disease in 1906 when he looked at the brain of a woman who had suffered from the condition. Dr. Alzheimer identified three characteristics of the disease that doctors still look for today:
- Amyloid plaques, which are abnormal clumps of fiber found in the brains of people with the disease.
- Neurofibrillary tangles, also known as tau tangles, are bundles of nerve fibers that are tangled and make up the bulk of amyloid plaques.
- Disconnections between nerve cells are also widely found in those who have Alzheimer's.
While most people who develop Alzheimer's are in their 60s, there is another form of the disease called early-onset Alzheimer's that affects people in their 40s and 50s.
Stages and Types of Alzheimer's Disease
Doctors have identified three stages of Alzheimer's. They are categorized by the symptoms that they cause. As the disease progresses, the symptoms become worse.
Early stage Alzheimer's is characterized by:
- Problems remembering the names of new acquaintances
- Occasional struggles to come up with the right word
- Increasing difficulty with work or social tasks
- Losing valuable items
- Having problems with planning or organizing
Keep in mind that early stage Alzheimer's is simply the term that describes the first phase of this disease. It isn't the same as early-onset Alzheimer's, which is a form of the disease that affects younger people.
Middle-stage Alzheimer's is characterized by:
- Forgetfulness about the individual's own life
- Increased moodiness or withdrawal in social situations
- Confusion about the day or place
- Increasing issues with becoming lost
- Noticeable personality changes
- Trouble with sleep
Late-stage Alzheimer's is characterized by:
- A need for assistance with personal care and daily tasks
- A loss of awareness about recent events or surroundings
- Increased difficulties communicating
- Weakened resistance to pneumonia and other infections
- Substantial changes in physical abilities such as walking, sitting, and swallowing
Symptoms and Causes
Experts have identified 10 early signs that a person has Alzheimer's. Not everyone who suffers from the disease will display all of these symptoms at the same time.
- Suffering from memory loss that disrupts daily life and that causes people to be unable to handle personal matters on their own
- Problems with planning or addressing problems that the individual did not suffer from before
- Struggles to complete familiar tasks at work, home or while participating in hobbies
- Long-lasting confusion about the time and place that can include forgetting how individuals got to their present location
- Difficulty interpreting visual information or understanding spatial relationships
- Experiencing new problems with speaking, vocabulary or writing that cause communication difficulties
- The tendency to misplace important or valuable items and be unable to retrace steps to find them
- Overall changes in judgment and decision-making skills that concern friends and family members
- Increased depression and withdrawal from social activities or work
- Significant changes in mood or personality that are easy for friends and family members to notice
Scientists still aren't entirely sure what causes Alzheimer's disease. They believe that a variety of genetic, environmental, health, and lifestyle factors might be involved in the development of this condition. Researchers are actively looking for clear answers about what causes this devastating disease.
Prevention and Risks
While researchers aren't entirely sure what causes Alzheimer's, they have identified some risk factors for the disease. Knowing these risk factors can help you determine if you or a loved one might have or be at risk for developing this condition.
- Age. Most people who have Alzheimer's are over 65, which means that age is the biggest risk factor for this condition. While some memory and cognitive problems are typical with age, serious problems that affect social interactions or self-care capabilities are often connected to Alzheimer's.
- Gender. About twice as many women as men receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Doctors aren't sure why this is but believe it might be related to hormone changes after menopause.
- Genetics. Scientists have discovered that a variety of genetic factors can influence the development of Alzheimer's. However, the fact that your parents or grandparents have or had Alzheimer's doesn't mean that you will. Doctors believe that the disease is the result of several factors instead of just one.
Diagnosis and Tests
If you're concerned that you or a loved one might be developing Alzheimer's disease, you should schedule an appointment with your family doctor. Your general practitioner can conduct an initial assessment and refer you to a neurologist, or specialist who studies the brain.
Doctors use two primary tactics to diagnose this disease.
They use interviews with the individual and close family members to determine if someone is suffering from thinking and cognition problems that aren't related to natural aging. At this point, doctors may also run tests to rule out medical conditions such as stroke, thyroid disease, and depression that can cause symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease.
Doctors may use brain scans to detect changes in the brain's structure or function. These types of scans can help doctors identify the type of dementia or Alzheimer's from which the individual suffers. They can also rule out strokes, tumors, and fluid buildups that can cause similar symptoms.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease. People with this condition, particularly in its more advanced stages, often benefit from living with family members or in a facility with caregivers who are specially trained to work with people who have Alzheimer's. In-home health professionals can also help people with this condition lead safer, happier lives.
Doctors also use a variety of drug therapies to help slow the progression of the disease, but these treatments don't offer the same results for all patients. Some of the most common medications used include:
- Memantine hydrochloride
- Donepezil hydrochloride
- Galantamine hydrobromide
Many people who suffer from this disease also benefit from working with mental health professionals who can help them cope with the effects of this upsetting condition.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Keeping up with activities and pastimes they enjoy is important for people with Alzheimer's disease. Doing so can help decrease stress and enable people to practice cognitive skills with which they struggle. Eating a balanced diet and getting exercise are also important. While they won't stop or reverse the disease, these healthy habits can help boost immunity to other health problems and may alleviate the depression often associated with Alzheimer's too.
Alzheimer's disease can be scary both for people suffering from it and their families. Understanding the symptoms and treatment options for the condition can help ease worries and help people with Alzheimer's lead a full life. You can learn more about this disease by checking out our articles on health and wellness.
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