Alzheimer’s Disease accounts for 60-70% of all dementia, effecting approximately 5.8 million Americans over the age of 65. The CDC predicts this number will reach 14 million by 2060. The National Institute on Aging states that Alzheimer’s is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.
What is Alzheimer’s
In 1906 Alois Alzheimer found abnormal clusters and tangles in the brain of a woman who had died with memory loss, language problems, and changes in her behavior. Further research has shown that in Alzheimer patients, clusters of protein build up between nerve cells and twisted fibers of another protein form within the nerve cells. These proteins block communication between nerve cells and cause them damage and to die. The area of the brain around these cells then shrinks and eventually dies.
This process begins in the portions of the brain essential to learning and memory. As the disease progresses to other parts of the brain, additional symptoms present themselves.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease unique to each person. In the early stages, one may repeat the same statement or story several times because they do not remember saying it. They may routinely misplace items in illogical locations. Many wander around lost in once familiar places.
As the disease progresses to other parts of the brain, they may have trouble finding the right words, have decreased or poor judgement, and personality changes.
In the final stages of the disease, the person is unable to communicate and is completely dependent on caregivers.
While scientists are still trying to determine what causes the abnormal amounts of proteins that cause Alzheimer’s, they have identified several risk factors.
While age is a primary risk factor, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. Early-onset Alzheimer’s can appear as early as one’s 30s and is more likely to be related to genetics than is later-onset Alzheimer’s.
People with Down’s Syndrome tend to develop Alzheimer’s because chromosome 21, of which they have an extra copy, contains the gene that generates the protein that builds up between the neurons.
Other risk factors include head trauma, air pollution, smoking, and sleeping habits.
Scientists do not know what causes or triggers the proteins in the brain to accumulate at abnormal amounts causing Alzheimer’s, but research indicates that it is possible to reduce some risk factors. Physical exercise and a healthy diet of fresh produce, healthy oils, and low saturated fats may help to reduce one’s risk.
Mental and social activities, especially later in life, are another way to reduce one’s risk factors. Reading, dancing, social events, playing music, and crafts stimulate the neurons to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Not everyone with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s has the disease. Other conditions, such as a vitamin deficiency or thyroid disorder, may cause some of the same symptoms.
Diagnosis of the disease can include all of the following tests:
There is not a cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are some treatments that help people with the disease. Some medicines help to delay the symptoms. Other forms of treatment include helping to manage behavior and adjusting to living with the disease.
Scientists continue to research ways to diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s.
- Physical and neurological exam
- Lab tests to rule out other causes
- Mental status test to assess memory
- Brain imaging, such as MRI CT or PET scans
Support for Families and Caregiversl
If you are a family member or caregiver for a person with Alzheimer’s it is important that you also take care of yourself. Having good coping skills, staying physically active, and a support system, such as a caregiver support group, help in your role in your loved one’s life.
Knowing as much as possible about the disease is an important part of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s.