What Is Alzheimer's Disease?
The typical brain has millions of neurons firing at all times, which result in thoughts, movement, feelings, emotions, and every function of our lives.
However, in some people, issues arise as the brain begins to acquire plaque and tangled proteins in the brain. These inhibitors lead to issues by damaging the healthy cells around them.
Alzheimer’s is largely a genetic disease that is passed on by a defective gene, but can be related to environmental factors as well.
Dementia is a general term describing the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. While not the only cause of memory loss, Alzheimer’s accounts for 50% to 80% of all dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The Alzheimer’s Association goes on to point out the following facts about Alzheimer’s:
- Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging
- Alzheimer’s worsens over time
- While some treatments exist, there is no cure
Alzheimer’s is often misperceived as a disease of the elderly. However, approximately 5% of Alzheimer’s patients begin exhibiting symptoms as early as their 40s. While there is a perception that early-onset Alzheimer’s progresses at a faster rate, the Mayo Clinic contends that this is not supported by empirical research.
Stages of Alzheimer's Disease:
Stage One: No Impairment/Normal Functioning. An interview with medical professionals will not show symptoms of dementia.
Stage Two: Very Mild Cognitive Decline (may be age-related changes). In this stage, a person may feel like they are having memory lapses - forgetting names of familiar words and every day objects. No symptoms of dementia are detectable by family or by medical professionals.
Stage Three: Mild Cognitive Decline. May be diagnosed as early-stage Alzheimer's Disease. In this stage, friends and family may notice differences in the person. Doctors may be able to detect problems with memory or concentration. Common difficulties include:
Stage Four: Moderate Cognitive Decline. An interview with a medical professional should be able to detect problems:
- Forgetting recent events
- Moody and withdrawn, especially in social situations.
- Forgetting personal history.
- Increased difficulty with complex tasks - paying bills or planning a gathering
- Inability to perform difficult mental arithmetic problems.
Stage Five: Moderately Severe Cognitive Decline (also known as Moderate or mid-stage Alzheimer's Disease). Noticeable gaps in memory and thinking while the person struggles with daily activities.
- Inability to remember address or phone number
- Trouble with less complicated mental arithmetic.
- Require help choosing appropriate clothing.
- Can eat and use the bathroom without help.
- Recall significant details about self and family members.
- Confusion as to the time and date.
Stage Six: Severe Cognitive Decline (also known as Moderately Severe Alzheimer's or Mid-Stage Alzheimer's Disease). In this stage, memory worsens, personalities change, and people need more help with daily activities.
- Awareness of recent experiences and surroundings is gone.
- Can recall name, but not personal history.
- Can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar faces, but trouble recalling name of spouse or caregiver.
- May wander and become lost.
- Major changes in sleep patterns - restlessness at night and sleeping during the day.
- Need help dressing properly.
- Need help with the details of toileting
- May have problems controlling their bowels or bladder.
- Major personality and behavioral changes such as suspiciousness and delusions.
Stage Seven: Very Severe Cognitive Decline (also known as Severe Alzheimer's Disease or Late-Stage Alzheimer's Disease) In this stage, the person loses the ability to respond to their environment, have a conversation, and control movement, although they may still use words. Those in this stage also need help with much personal care - eating and using the bathroom - while losing their ability to smile, sit without support or hold their head up. Swallowing is impaired as reflexes become abnormal.
Potential Risk Factors for Alzheimer's Disease:
In addition to genetic disposition, there are several other known potential risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Cardiovasular disease: Issues with blood vessels may damage those vessels in the brain and may progress the disease. Similarly, high cholesterol may reduce the body’s ability to clear build-up from the brain
- Type-2 Diabetes: Inability to covert sugar to energy may result in harm to the brain
- Inflammation: Including prior injury to the head
Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease:
While the symptoms of Alzheimer’s may vary to a certain degree, it can generally be described by the following:
- Difficulty remembering newly learned information: Alzheimer’s typically impacts the part of the brain that is directly tied to learning. New learning is often the first area to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have memory issues may not recognize their difficulty with recall, despite the obviousness to others.
- Behavioral changes: Specifically related to mood and temperament, those suffering from Alzheimer’s may become suspicious of others, defensive, and have general changes in mood and behavior.
- Confusion: Closely tied to behavioral changes, confusion often becomes an issue as the person has difficulty recalling situations, surroundings, and people.
- Somatic issues: As the disease progresses, difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking may be symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease:
There is no single test for Alzheimer’s, and a diagnosis is often based upon a review of medical history, mental status testing, physical and neurological exams, and blood tests and brain imaging.
Early diagnosis is the key to the most effective treatment. Early diagnosis allows for more treatment options and the best chance at memory function retention.
Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease:
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, there are several treatments that may help retain memory and brain function.
The treatment options currently available include the following:
Medications: There are several drugs that have been approved by the FDA, called cholinesterase inhibitors, which help slow the progression of cognitive impairment.
Clinical Trials: Many clinical trials are conducted each year to better understand and develop treatment options for Alzheimer’s. While none of these currently are a cure for the disease, researchers always need participants for new drugs and treatment methods.
Tips for Living with Alzheimer's
Here are a few tips that may make living with Alzheimer's a little easier on you and your loved ones:
1) Get help with household chores - hire outside services for cleaning or yard work and set up grocery or meal deliveries. Not only will you get assistance in maintaining your household routines, but you'll get interaction with others which will help you feel less isolated.
2) Talk with your bank about automatic bill payment services and accounts-keeping. If they don't provide services, talk with your local senior center. Often they have volunteers who will help with these types of tasks.
3) Protect yourself from fraud. Register your phone number on the national do not call list; get Caller ID and screen your calls - don't answer any that you don't recognize -if they really want to talk to you, they'll leave a message; take steps to stop unwanted junk mail.
4) Use memory aides to help you stay organized and cope with memory loss. Make lists for daily activities, label drawers and cabinets with their contents, keep important phone numbers by the phone, leave yourself notes as reminders about locking windows or doors. Keep a folder of instructions for appliances in the appropriate room (kitchen appliances in the kitchen, TV and radio in living room, etc).
5) Think safety. Install handrails and grab bars to prevent falls; invest in appliances that turn off automatically; enroll in a life-alert system. The Alzheimer's Association has a MedicAlert® + Alzheimer's Association Safe Return® service that can help protect you if have a medical emergency or if you get lost and cannot find your way home.
6) Take your medications! If you need help remembering what to take when, enlist a family member or friend to put your pills into a weekly pill organizer for you. Write yourself a note after you take each day's pills or mark it on the calendar. Get a watch with an alarm and set it to go off when it's time for your medications.
7) Stay active. Continue your current hobbies and find new ones. Socialize as much as you can.
8) As hard as it may be to admit, there will come a time when it's no longer safe for you to drive. Ask family or friends for help, take public transit or taxi services, and find out if your town provides transit services for seniors or those with special needs.
9) Plan for your future care. Pre-arrange home health services and even estate planning. This is one way to ensure that your wishes are respected when you can no longer make the decisions yourself.
10) Talk to your friends and family about your condition. Help them to understand what to expect; allow them to express their feelings and concerns; let them know yours.
11) Find support programs. Connect with others who have Alzheimer's - there is strength in numbers. We are never alone, no matter how much we may think we are.
Additional Information Regarding Alzheimer's
Finally, the Alzheimer’s Association provides the following ten early indicators of Alzheimer’s.
If you or someone you know exhibits these signs, speak to your medical professional for further testing and follow-up.
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life: This includes forgetting important information, asking the same questions multiple times, excessive reliance on memory cues, such as notes.
2. Challenges in planning or problem solving: This includes difficulty concentration for a long period of time, or taking longer than usual to complete tasks, forgetting well known information
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
4. Confusion with time or place
5. Vision and perception difficulty: This includes reading, judging distances, determining color or contrast, seeing themselves in a mirror and believe someone else is in the room
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing: Repeating information, vocabulary difficulty, calling items by the wrong name
7. Misplacing items
8. Decreased or poor judgment: including managing money, grooming issues
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood or personality: including confusion, suspicion, depression, fear or anxiety.
Hotlines for Alzheimer's Disease:
Alzheimer's Association: 1-800.272.3900
Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center: 1-800-438-4380
Alzheimer's Society UK: 0845 300 0336
Alzheimer's Foundation of America: 866-AFA-8484
Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation: 1-800-ALZINFO (259-4636)
Resources for Alzheimer's Disease:
Alzheimer's Association: the leading, global voluntary health organization in Alzheimer's care and support, and the largest private, nonprofit funder of Alzheimer's research.
Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center: current, comprehensive Alzheimer's disease (AD) information and resources from the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Alzheimer's Society (UK): which works to improve the quality of life of people affected by dementia in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation: The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation is dedicated to attacking the scourge of Alzheimer's with a 3-pronged assault focused on the cause, care, and cure for Alzheimer's disease as well as supporting the public with educational programs.
Alzheimer's Research Forum: the web's most dynamic scientific community dedicated to understanding Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. Access to the web site is free to all.