Get the essential facts about Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is a disease, not a normal part of aging.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting about 1 in 8 people over age 65.
It causes 60 – 80% of all dementia cases and is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.
We explain what Alzheimer’s disease is, common symptoms, causes, and treatment options.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease, which means that it worsens over time. It destroys memory and thinking skills and, in later stages, physical functions.
In the early stages, memory loss and other symptoms are mild. In late-stage Alzheimer’s, people can no longer communicate or respond to their environment.
Most people with Alzheimer’s first show symptoms when they’re in their mid-60s. But about 5% develop symptoms before age 65 – about 200,000 Americans. When that happens, it’s called early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Scientists don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s, but they suspect that the brain damage and symptoms come from amyloid plaques and Tau tangles in the brain.
Plaques are deposits of amyloid proteins that build up. Tangles are twisted fibers of tau protein that build up inside nerve cells.
People with Alzheimer’s experience physical symptoms as well as cognitive because neurons in the brain stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die. Those neurons are needed to send messages between different parts of the brain and from the brain to parts of the body.
The damage typically starts in the part of the brain that’s responsible for forming memories. As more neurons die, more parts of the brain are affected.
In the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage has spread throughout the brain and the brain itself has shrunk significantly.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information.
Many people also notice trouble finding the right words, vision or spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment.
One of the biggest challenges with people in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s is that they might not recognize they have a serious problem.
Other common symptoms include:
- Having a hard time with everyday tasks
- Trouble focusing
- Feeling confused or frustrated, especially at night
- Trouble communicating
- Mood swings – outbursts of anger, anxiety, and depression
- Feeling disoriented and getting lost easily
- Physical problems, like a strange walk or poor coordination
As Alzheimer’s spreads through the brain, the person will need a higher level of care as symptoms increase in severity.
More advanced symptoms include:
- Mood and behavior changes
- More serious memory loss and behavior changes
- Disorientation and increasing confusion about events, time, and place
- Paranoia and suspicion toward family, friends, and professional caregivers
- Trouble dressing, bathing, and using the toilet
- Difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking
- Inability to recognize or name family members or people close to them
Alzheimer’s vs dementia
Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia.
Causes of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists still don’t understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s is often caused by genetic mutations. Late-onset Alzheimer’s seems to be caused by changes in the brain that develop over decades. The causes probably include genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
It’s still not known why the disease primarily affects older people.
There could be something in the relationship between cognitive decline and health conditions like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. It’s possible that reducing the risk of these conditions could also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Doctors recommend living a healthy lifestyle to help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. That includes healthy eating, regular exercise, maintaining social connections, and staying mentally active.
Alzheimer’s treatment and life expectancy
At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. But there are 5 FDA-approved drugs that may improve quality of life for both the person with Alzheimer’s and their family.
These drugs could help delay, reduce, or stabilize Alzheimer’s symptoms like memory loss and confusion. They may also help control some behavioral symptoms.
Alzheimer’s disease typically progresses in three stages.
An early stage with minimal symptoms, a middle stage of increasing cognitive impairment, and a final stage where the person needs help with all activities of living and may not be able to communicate or engage with the world.
People with Alzheimer’s live an average of 8 years after symptoms become noticeable. But survival can range from 4 – 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.
Recommended for you:
- Therapeutic Fibbing: Why Experts Recommend Lying to Someone with Dementia
- The Mini Mental Status Exam: A Dementia Screening Tool
- 5 Tips for Dealing with Caregiver Guilt in Dementia Care
By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Image: All Care Hawaii