What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a condition which affects your brain, resulting in a gradual deterioration of your cognitive skills.
It’s classed as a type of dementia, a term described as symptoms resulting in an eventual decline of mental abilities, such as memory loss.
Alzheimer’s is more common in individuals over the age of 65. However, it can also occur in younger people. (1)
Alzheimer’s disease is caused by deterioration of your brain cells over time. The exact trigger of this degeneration is yet to be identified.
However, one theory is that the disease develops because of abnormal protein build-up around and inside brain cells. The two proteins involved are amyloid and tau.
Amyloid deposits collect around brain cells and form plaques. Tau deposits form tangles inside the cells.
As protein build-up advances, neurotransmitters become impaired. These are the chemical messengers in the brain which send signals around the body.
This process begins years before the appearance of symptoms. Eventually, areas of the brain will begin to physically shrink. (2)
The symptoms of alzheimer’s disease can include: (3)
Lapses of memory are often the first noticeable sign of the disease. Events, dates, and plans can be forgotten.
Information recently learned is difficult to retain. The affected person may start to heavily rely on reminders (i.e. electronic devices) for plans and responsibilities.
Losing track of the time, date, and even year is another telltale symptom of alzheimer’s.
A person with alzheimer’s can also experience difficulty remembering how they arrived at their current location.
Language or Speech Issues
As the disease progresses, language and speech can become impaired. The individual can begin to forget the terms for common items, or use the wrong words.
Suddenly stopping in the middle of speaking or repeating phrases can also occur.
Family members and friends may notice significant personality changes as the condition advances. The alzheimer’s patient can become depressed, confused, or aggressive at times.
The person may become highly distressed in unfamiliar situations. They may also grow withdrawn and stop socializing.
Personal care, such as bathing, can often be neglected. The individual may exhibit poor judgment, such as dressing incorrectly for the weather.
Alzheimer’s disease can also cause physical impairments over time. Some individuals may experience bowel or bladder incontinence.
At advanced stages, the patient may need help eating, sitting and walking. Swallowing can also become difficult. (4)
Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, resulting in increased loss of function over time. However, not every person will experience the same symptoms and rate of progression.
The condition generally advances through the following stages: (5)
Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease
This stage is referred to as the “silent” stage, because there are no symptoms.
Biomarkers of the disease can be discovered with brain imaging scans or analysis of cerebrospinal fluid. Biomarkers indicate the probability of you developing a disease, or the presence of a disease. (6)
Mild Alzheimer’s Disease
At this stage, the most noticeable symptom is a lapse of memory. This can manifest as being unable to recall the names of certain items or places.
An individual with early alzheimer’s might have difficulty remembering specific words. Making decisions can start to become difficult and losing track of items more frequent.
Mood changes, such as occasional confusion and anxiety, can begin to occur.
However, the person will still be able to stay independent and participate in daily activities on their own.
Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease
The symptoms of moderate alzheimer’s disease are usually noticeable to other people. The person can become confused about what date it is or where they are located.
Personal details, like phone numbers or addresses, can be difficult to remember. Incidents of poor judgment grow more serious, like choosing light clothing during winter.
The individual will also likely experience changes in behavior and personality, such as delusions. Bowel and bladder incontinence may occur in certain people.
This is generally the longest lasting stage of the disease. An individual at this stage requires some supervision and care.
Severe Alzheimer’s Disease
The symptoms of alzheimer’s disease are now debilitating. The affected person will often have trouble responding to the environment around them.
This can include losing the ability to converse as communication grows more difficult. The individual may also have trouble expressing sensation of pain or discomfort.
Changes in personality and mood can be significant. A person with severe alzheimer’s disease requires help with almost all activities.
Physical health can be affected at this stage. Walking, sitting and even swallowing can be hard to manage.
If you present with symptoms of alzheimer’s disease, your doctor will first evaluate your medical history. You will then be subjected to a physical exam to assess your overall health.
Certain undiagnosed illnesses can worsen or even cause symptoms of dementia, such as depression.
Your doctor may refer you to a neurologist or psychiatrist experienced in alzheimer’s. You will likely be subjected to a series of cognitive tests to assess your symptoms.
These tests assess functions such as memory and speech. Finally, imaging tests such
as an MRI can reveal abnormal changes to your brain. (7)
The damaging effects of alzheimer’s on the brain are visible on a brain scan. The cortex begins to noticeably shrink and spaces in your brain filled with fluid increase in size. (8)
Alzheimer’s disease cannot be reversed or cured. However, treatments can help patients and caregivers manage the disease.
Non-drug approaches aim to help caregivers identify how to make patients more comfortable.
A caregiver can learn to notice when the patient is in need but can’t express it, such as feeling hungry.
Other strategies include not taking outbursts personally and avoiding stressful situations.
When dealing with an individual with alzheimer’s, it is important to avoid confrontation.
Adapting techniques to respond and acknowledge patient requests, even when they are nonsensical. (9)
Addressing Other Conditions
Other medical conditions can worsen symptoms of the disease. Late stage alzheimer’s patients may have trouble communicating they are in pain.
Urinary tract infections and other common illnesses can cause discomfort. The individual may express this discomfort as agitation or other undesirable behaviors.
Poor vision or hearing loss can also increase frustration and anger behaviors. Addressing other health concerns can improve an alzheimer patient’s overall well being.(10)
Cholinesterase inhibitors work to prevent acetylcholine from being broken down in the brain. Acetylcholine is an important chemical messenger for memory and learning ability.
These drugs can stop symptoms from worsening for six to 12 months in 50 percent of patients. (11)
Generally prescribed for mild to moderate stage alzheimer’s disease, they have few side effects.
Memantine is used to treat moderate to late stage alzheimer’s. This drug helps to regulate glutamate, another neurotransmitter related to memory and learning.
It may also be used alongside cholinesterase inhibitors. Memantine is designed to temporarily delay symptoms from intensifying.
However, this medication may cause side effects. These include, constipation, headache, confusion and dizziness. (12)
What is alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimer’s disease causes gradual impairment of your cognitive abilities.
What are the signs of alzheimer’s disease? The signs of the disease can include memory loss, confusion and issues with language or speech. As it progresses, you might experience personality changes and physical impairments.
How do you develop alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimer’s disease develops when proteins accumulate around or inside your brain cells. These proteins cause tangles inside the cells and plaque deposits around them, consequently impairing function. Eventually, areas of the brain begin to shrink.
What is the best treatment for alzheimer’s disease? Medical interventions include memantine and cholinesterase inhibitors. Other conditions such as depression should be checked for and addressed as needed. Finally, non-drug approaches can be used to improve both the patient and caregiver’s quality of life.
What are the long term complications of alzheimer’s disease? As the disease advances, a person with alzheimer’s can require full-time assistance. Daily activities and self-care (i.e. eating, washing) can become extremely difficult or impossible.
Is alzheimer’s disease considered a disability? Yes, alzheimer’s disease is considered a disability. To qualify, your doctor must prove the condition impairs your cognitive abilities to the point that you cannot perform any work tasks. (13)
Is there any cure for alzheimer’s disease? No, there is no cure for alzheimer’s disease. However, there are various treatment options to manage symptoms. (14)
Is alzheimer’s disease life threatening? Alzheimer’s disease is in the top ten causes of death in the US, therefore is considered a life threatening form of dementia. (15)
The chances of contracting alzheimer’s disease increase with age. If one or more family members have been affected by the disease, you are also more at risk. (16)
Unfortunately, the exact mechanism behind the condition is not fully understood. This means there are no certain methods of preventing alzheimer’s disease.
Keeping socially and mentally active as you age may reduce your risk of dementia in general, including alzheimer’s.
A healthy lifestyle can also benefit alzheimer’s prevention or delay. Cardiovascular diseases have been associated with a greater risk of alzheimer’s. (17)
Do not dismiss symptoms such as memory loss or frequent confusion as a normal part of aging. If you suspect you or a loved one might have alzheimer’s disease, consult your doctor. (18)