Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that destroys an individual’s memory and critical mental functions. Alzheimer’s can start of slow with a person having difficulty remembering or some mild confusion, but they may eventually undergo drastic personality changes and even forget the most important people in their lives.
It is currently the most common form of dementia, a group of brain disorders that cause a decline and eventual loss of intellectual and social skills. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and of the 6.8 million people diagnosed with dementia, about 5 million had Alzheimer’s.
In Alzheimer’s, abnormal protein deposits form plaques and tangles in the brain. These plaques cause the connections between the cells to be lost, they begin to degenerate and then they die. This is what causes the steady decline in mental function, and in advanced cases, also causes significant brain shrinkage. Although younger people can and do get Alzheimer’s, for most people the symptoms begin after the age of 60; this however does not mean that it only affects older people.
There are some medications and management strategies that may provide temporary relief from some of the symptoms. This allows victims to slow the progression of the disease as much as possible but due to the fact that there is no cure, it is important to seek supportive services as early as possible as the disease will eventually get to a debilitating state.
The progression of Alzheimer’s can be loosely broken down into the three following stages:
- Preclinical – This is usually before symptoms appear
- Mild Cognitive Impairment – This usually consists of general forgetfulness and affects many people as they age, however, it does not always progress into dementia or Alzheimer’s.
- Dementia – When the individual has been diagnosed.
Risk Factors and Prevention
Certain risk factors of dementia and Alzheimer’s such as old age and genetics cannot be changed but this hasn’t deterred researchers from exploring other areas that may affect brain health:
- Cardiovascular risk factors – Damage to the blood vessels can deprive the brain cells of food and oxygen. This is often linked to vascular dementia.
- Physical Exercise – Regular exercise increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain which helps lower the risk of dementia.
- Diet – Your diet affects your brain health through its effect on your heart. Studies show heart healthy eating patterns also help the brain.
- Reversible factors – These include medication interactions, vitamin deficiencies, depression and thyroid abnormalities.
- Down Syndrome – Not only do many people with down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s but the symptoms are also present about 10 to 20 years earlier than the rest of the general population.
- Sex – Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, partly because they tend to live longer.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms of dementia may vary significantly depending on the individual and also the type of dementia, however, generally speaking at least two of the following cognitive abilities must be significantly hampered to be considered dementia:
- Communication and Language
- Ability to concentrate and pay attention
- Reasoning and judgment
- Visual perception
Alzheimer’s is progressive, meaning that the symptoms start out mildly and get worse over time. Below are some of the symptoms a victim might present:
- Difficulty remembering conversations, names or events
- Apathy and depression
- Impaired communication
- Poor judgment
- Behavioral changes and difficulty swallowing, speaking or walking
- Sleep disturbances
- Delusions, such as believing something has happened when it hasn’t.
There is currently no infallible test to determine if someone has any form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Doctors use a combination of medical history, lab tests, constant observation of the patient’s behaviors and thinking as well as physical examinations. While this may result in a high level of success, it is considerably more difficult to diagnose which specific type of dementia an individual has. It is only possible to get a 100% diagnosis by putting the brain under a microscope after death. However, they may perform the following types of test to help differentiate between Alzheimer’s and other causes of memory loss including other types of dementia:
- Physical and neurological exam
- Brain imaging
- Mental status and neuropsychological testing.
- General Lab tests
Unfortunately, there is no current drug that slows, stops or cures most of the types of progressive dementias, such as Alzheimer’s. There are however some treatments that help temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms. Non-drug therapies may also provide some temporary relief from some of the symptoms of dementia. Here are a few treatments that may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s or provide some temporary relief:
- Medications: Drugs such as cholinesterase inhibitors, which improve cell to cell communication, and Memantine. These are often used in tandem.
- Exercise – Can improve your mood and general well being as well as maintain the health of your joints, muscles and heart.
- Nutrition – Patients may forget or lose interest in eating but it is important to maintain hydration and a balanced diet to avoid things like malnutrition, constipation and dehydration.
- Creating safe and supporting environments.