According to the CDC, Alzheimer’s disease is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the most common cause of dementia in seniors. Alzheimer’s is an irreversible, progressive disease caused by a diminished ability of message-carrying neuron cells in one part of the brain to communicate with another part of the brain, or the rest of the body. This reduced brain function eventually causes cell and neuron death and a gradual shrinking of brain tissue. As the disease progresses, the ability to remember basic information and carry out daily tasks diminishes.
Early symptoms of memory loss and confusion most often occur when a patient is in their sixties, but Alzheimer’s disease is occasionally seen in people in their forties and fifties. The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who noted clumps of protein and tangled fibers in the brain of a woman who died after several years of mental illness. These clumps and fibers are believed to hinder neuron communication, and they are now seen as classic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. Formation of these clumps and fibers is a normal part of aging for many people, but they are seen in greater quantity in Alzheimer’s patients. It is believed that these brain changes begin to develop several years before symptoms of the disease appear.
Alzheimer’s Disease Basics
Alzheimer’s disease is primarily diagnosed by interviewing the patient and his or her loved ones to assess cognitive and behavioral changes, and by doing various mental tests to assess memory and problem-solving ability. Assessment of symptoms plays a key role.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Memory loss that interferes with daily tasks, such as forgetting how to get to a familiar place, losing possessions, or forgetting the name of a loved one
- Difficulty concentrating on a task, especially those involving numbers, such as figuring out a tip
- Mood disturbances and depression
- Problems with fine motor control
- Trouble following and participating in a conversation
- Reduced interest or withdrawal from usual activities
- Trouble sleeping
In later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, confusion and mood disturbances become more pronounced, the person may experience hallucinations and paranoia, memory loss may increase to the point that the person cannot remember how to care for themselves on a daily basis, and physical symptoms, such as loss of motor control, weight loss, and secondary infections may set in.
During the diagnostic process, brain scans, blood and urine tests, and other laboratory work are performed to rule out other conditions. Treatment of Alzheimer’s varies by the individual, but usually involves a combination of medications to improve mental function and behavioral therapy to help with symptoms such as anxiety, confusion, and aggression. An important aspect of any Alzheimer’s treatment plan is the involvement of loved ones in creating a safe and calm environment for the person with Alzheimer’s.
While the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are not yet fully understood, scientists believe that a genetic mutation, coupled with lifestyle and environmental factors, is the primary cause. Current research is focusing on possible links between hearth health and the development of Alzheimer’s, and whether obesity or diabetes plays a role in a person’s development of the disease. Early treatment of Alzheimer’s, while not able to prevent the disease from progressing, has been shown to delay the full effects of the disease for a period of time.
A few studies have shown that mental stimulation can provide a degree of protection against Alzheimer’s. Activities such as learning new things, reading a challenging book, doing a crossword puzzle, or taking up a new hobby can help keep the brain healthy.