Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible disorder impacting the brain. Over time, it makes it difficult for a person to remember things and, slowly destroys a person’s thinking skills, memory and ability to manage tasks. The National Institute on Aging estimates that 5.5 million Americans have this condition.
The condition occurs as brain cells waste away and eventually die. Unlike other cells in the body that are easily replaced, the brain cannot do this. Alzheimer’s disease, which is a form of dementia, has no cure, but researchers are working on ways to slow the progression of this cognitive decline. Typically, this condition will damage the part of the brain that affects a person’s social and behavioral skills, leading to an inability to function on their own.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and accounts for 60% to 80% of all dementia cases in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Although Alzheimer’s mainly affects people age 65 or older, it should not be considered a normal part of aging.
In many ways, researchers are unsure of what causes the condition to occur and why it impacts some people and not others. However, there are some key findings that we understand about this condition. When a person develops Alzheimer’s disease, their brain’s cells begin to deteriorate and eventually will die. As this happens, changes in their ability to socialize, communicate, and function occur. This impacts a person’s ability to do things like remember details at first, but over time can make it hard to accomplish even simple tasks.
What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease?
One of the key factors of slowing down Alzheimer’s is early detection. Understanding the warning signs for this condition is important. Most of the time, the very first signs include having trouble remembering conversations and recent activities or events.
Over time, this gets more common and, eventually, other symptoms develop. Some of the most common symptoms of this condition include the following:
Changes in Memory
Most people forget things from time to time. This often happens when a person is busy or preoccupied. However, those who have Alzheimer’s are more likely to do this often, and it begins to impact their ability to do things, such as work or complete tasks at home.
This can cause people to ask the same questions more than once. Often, those with Alzheimer’s forget conversations completely or may engage in activities only to forget they did so. They misplace things and often find them in places that don’t seem normal – such as finding a phone in the refrigerator. Even if a person has been in a location many times, they may get confused and be unable to remember how to get around. They stop remembering the names of people, especially over time. They also cannot remember the names of things, even items that they use every day, such as lamps or televisions.
Changes in Judgment and Decision-Making
Another key change is in the way reasonable decisions are made. Even in everyday situations, a person may make poor decisions, especially those that do not seem normal to them. Simple tasks that they would have normally handled with no problem become challenging simply because they do not react properly to situations as they occur. For example, they may not drive the proper path to a destination they know well, or they may burn food that they had made often.
Changes in Personality and Behavior
Also, a characteristic of Alzheimer’s is changes in a person’s mood and the way they behave on a routine basis. Many people become depressed or apathetic. Some people will withdraw themselves from social interactions, changes in sleeping habits can occur, and irritability or aggressiveness are possible. Many people have a distrust of others, even family members, or may have a loss of inhibitions. Others wander or experience delusions.
Changes in Performing Tasks
As Alzheimer’s progresses, a person may find routine activities that have various steps hard to do. For example, playing a game they have played for years becomes impossible to do. A person may forget how to dress themselves and to maintain proper hygiene.
Not All Skills Are Lost
One of the key aspects of Alzheimer’s is that some skills remain longer than others, though the severity of the condition will warrant differences from one person to another. For example, many people will still be able to read, listen to books, do crafts, sing, dance or otherwise engage in activities they used to enjoy. Often, they will tell stories or reminisce about their childhood, even telling stories family members may not have heard before.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
There are stages of Alzheimer’s that determine the level of cognitive impairment. They include:
Early Stage: A mild form of the condition often represented with difficulty remembering words or forgetting information that was just read. Increasing problems with planning and organization can occur.
Middle Stage: Here, a person’s condition remains stable for some time, or can slowly worsen. A greater level of care becomes common in this area. Performing some tasks, such as managing money or cooking food, becomes difficult for those in this stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Forgetfulness often occurs, as does confusion. Personality and behavioral changes occur.
Late Stage: In this situation, a person may have difficulty responding to their environment, suffer a significant loss of cognitive skill and be unable to control movement. As it worsens, extensive help with daily activities becomes essential. Around-the-clock care becomes essential during late-stage Alzheimer’s.
What Are the Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease?
For many people, the cause of Alzheimer’s is a combination of genetic makeup along with environmental factors that change and impact the brain over time. Only about one percent of people have a specific genetic cause, though, and when present, this condition develops in middle age. For most people, it is a result of environmental factors.
Alzheimer’s disease develops as a result of brain proteins that do not function properly. As a result, this changes the way the neurons in the brain communicate and creates a series of complications. When there’s damage to the neurons, they cannot communicate with each other, often leading to the death of the cells.
Two types of proteins in the brain are responsible for this. Plaques that develop from beta-amyloid are a type of fragment from larger protein that clumps together and impacts the neurons, limiting the ability of the cells to communicate. Tangles also form, which occur when tau proteins change in shape and are no longer organized properly. This tangle causes difficulty in the communication of the cells.
Who Is Most at Risk for Developing Alzheimer’s?
The Mayo Clinic reports that diagnosis is common between the ages of 64 and 74, and the number escalates over time. For every 1,000 people over the age of 85, 37 new diagnoses of Alzheimer’s will occur each year.
Genetics and a family history of Alzheimer’s will typically increase a person’s risk of developing this disease. People who have Down syndrome are also more likely to develop the condition. Limited education, especially less than high school, is widely considered a risk factor. Other risk factors include people who have a mild cognitive impairment, past head trauma or poor sleep patterns. There’s also a link between a person’s heart health and lifestyle. Those who are obese, do not get a lot of exercise, smoke, or have high blood pressure or high cholesterol are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
There is some evidence that people who engage in lifelong learning and remain more socially and mentally active into retirement are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s as a result.
How Is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?
Doctors use a series of tests and an understanding of a person’s symptoms to determine if a person has Alzheimer’s. This begins with a neurological and physical exam. Blood tests may help to rule out other causes of memory loss, such as a deficiency in vitamins or a thyroid disorder. Neuropsychological testing can also be used, as can brain imaging, to see changes in the brain’s makeup. An MRI and CT scan are typically done to provide clear information and to rule out other causes such as strokes, tumors or head trauma. PET scans can also be used to understand the development and presence of the condition, especially as this can look for changes in those proteins.
What Are the Treatment Options for Alzheimer’s?
Several treatment options are available often with the ability to help slow the progression of the condition as well as to manage symptoms. Here are a few common types.
Cholinesterase Inhibitors: These types of drugs improve the ability of the brain’s cells to communicate. They do this by preserving the chemical messenger that tends to become depleted in Alzheimer’s. Additionally, it can help with agitation and depression. There are some physical side effects common, such as trouble sleeping and diarrhea.
Memantine: This type of drug helps to improve cell communication as well. It can help to slow the progression of symptoms in many people. Often, it is used in combination with other treatments.
Other treatments may include improving a person’s diet, such as increasing access to Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin K, and Ginkgo. Exercise and proper nutrition can help many people. Also, staying engaged with family and friends, especially in a social environment, can help.
What Type of Care Do Those with Alzheimer’s Typically Need?
Those who develop moderate to severe Alzheimer’s need a safe place to live. This may include a memory care location that can ensure a person cannot leave unnoticed. It can also be important to be involved with routine activities and programs so as allow Alzheimer’s patients to enjoy a quality and engaging life in a safe and controlled setting.
Additionally, many people with Alzheimer’s need supportive care as their condition worsens, such as help with medication, hygiene and daily tasks. A supportive living environment with enrichment programs may help to keep the brain stimulated and the person safe.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s care, contact the friendly professionals at Homestead at Hamilton.