Alzheimer’s disease: Description
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a serious brain disorder that impacts daily living through memory loss and cognitive changes. Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disease, progressing from mild forgetfulness to widespread neurological impairment and ultimately death. Chemical and structural changes in the brain gradually destroy the ability to create, remember, learn, reason, and relate to others. As critical cells die, drastic personality loss occurs and body systems fail.
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder which gradually destroys the ability to reason, remember, imagine, and learn. It’s different from the mild forgetfulness normally observed in older people. Over the course of the disease, people with Alzheimer’s no longer recognize themselves or much about the world around them. Depression, anxiety, and paranoia often accompany these symptoms. Although there is no cure, new treatments help lessen Alzheimer’s disease symptoms and slow its progression.
Alzheimer’s is marked by abnormal clumps (called senile plaques) and irregular knots (called neurofibrillary tangles) of brain cells. For reasons not well understood, these plaques and tangles take over healthy brain tissue, devastating the areas of the brain associated with an intellectual function.
While Alzheimer’s disease disease usually affects those over age 65, a rare and aggressive form of Alzheimer’s can happen in some people in their 40s and 50s. Alzheimer’s disease progresses slowly, taking between three to 18 years to advance from the earliest symptoms to death; the average duration of the disease is eight years. Death results not from the disease itself but from some secondary illness such as pneumonia or urinary tract infection. Right now, treatment of Alzheimer’s disease focuses on slowing its progression and coping with its symptoms.
In the early and middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, people with the illness may be painfully aware of their intellectual failings and what is yet to come. At this stage and throughout the course of the illness, it’s vitally important to support their mental and emotional well-being with the help of their doctor, social worker, or psychological counselor. Show them love, affection, and warmth as they make their journey.
Recent memory loss that affects job skills: It’s normal to forget people’s names from time to time, but frequent forgetfulness is cause for concern.
Difficulty performing familiar tasks: Anyone can leave a button unbuttoned. But when someone becomes persistently challenged by buttons, or other tasks of daily living that most people take for granted, it might signal Alzheimer’s.
Language problems: From time to time, anyone can have difficulty finding the right word. But for people with Alzheimer’s, simple words present problems, and sentences can become incomprehensible.
Time and place disorientation: It’s normal to forget the date or a destination. But people with Alzheimer’s often feel lost standing across the street from their homes.
Loss of judgment: Anyone can fail to notice that an item of clothing is stained. But when someone dresses completely inappropriately – wearing several shirts or mistaking underwear for a hat – that’s cause for concern.Problems with abstract thinking: Anyone can struggle over balancing a checkbook. People with Alzheimer’s forget what numbers are for and how to use them.
Misplacing things: Anyone can misplace a wallet or keys. But when someone puts a wallet in the refrigerator, or keys in the sink, that might signal Alzheimer’s.
Changes in mood or behavior: Changing moods are a fact of life. But people with Alzheimer’s often exhibit rapid mood changes – from calm to tears to rage for no apparent reason.
Changes in personality: People often become more “crotchety” as they get older. But Alzheimer’s often makes people paranoid, very confused, or fearful.
Loss of initiative: It’s normal to get bored with daily activities. But when people lose much of their get-up-and-go, that’s cause for concern.
Ten warning signs of Alzheimer’s:
1. Memory loss
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
3. Problems with language
4. Disorientation to time and place
5. Poor or decreased judgment
6. Problems with abstract thinking
7. Misplacing things
8. Changes in mood or behavior
10. Loss of initiative
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, but scientific research is bringing us closer to a cure every day. Outstanding progress has already been made in unraveling the mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease, including what causes it and what happens in the brain as the disease progresses. New understandings about these processes have already provided critical information about how doctors might prevent, delay, stop or even reverse the nerve cell damage that leads to the devastating symptoms of Alzheimer’s. All around the world, scientists and pharmaceutical companies are now racing to develop treatments that address the underlying disease processes, some of which (or a combination of which) might effectively solve the Alzheimer’s disease puzzle.
In this section, you will learn how Alzheimer’s disease is treated. Because there is no cure, managing the disease usually involves medications to control symptoms, in combination with various non-drug strategies designed to ease the suffering of the person afflicted as well as his or her family and caregiver.
Scientific research is also providing valuable information about how drug and non-drug approaches to treatment can improve day-to-day functioning and maximize a quality of life. Drug (pharmacological) treatments currently available are used to manage the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as changes in thinking, memory, and perception. They can’t stop the disease, but they can slow the progression of symptoms in some people, at least for a while. While drug therapy is important and beneficial, especially in early stages, the management of Alzheimer’s disease has evolved to include non-pharmacological therapies as integral aspects of care. These include various strategies aimed at managing problematic behaviors, including involvement in therapeutic activities, home or “environmental” modifications, and the use of appropriate communication techniques. Support and education for caregivers and family members are also crucial to the best care of people with Alzheimer’s.
Causes and risk factors
Doctors don’t know exactly why people develop Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s likely to be caused by a combination of factors.
The main risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease is age.
About half of people with Alzheimer’s disease have parents, brothers or sisters who have it. However, only about one in 20 people with Alzheimer’s disease has directly inherited it. There are some inherited risk factors that make you more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease, but these don’t mean that you will definitely do so. For example, inheritance of certain genes appears to increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Other factors that make you more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease include previous head injury, a low level of education, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Women are more likely to develop the disease than men.
Various lifestyle and environmental factors have been linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Some researchers have suggested that people who keep their brains active, for example by doing crosswords, are less likely to develop the disease. Eating a healthy diet with enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in oily fish such as mackerel and salmon, may help to prevent dementia. Staying physically active may also reduce the risk of developing the disease. However, more research is needed in this area.
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
There is currently no single practical test for Alzheimer’s disease. If your GP suspects you have Alzheimer’s disease, he or she will try to confirm some of the symptoms, such as memory loss and difficulty with speech. He or she may do blood tests to help exclude other conditions that might look like Alzheimer’s disease.
Your GP will probably refer you to a specialist service involved in the treatment of dementia and its effects. You may be seen by:
1. A psychiatrist.
2. A neurologist.
Tests may include a series of questions and tests that investigate memory, language and mathematical skills. Other investigations may include a brain scan, typically magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI scan uses magnets and radiowaves to produce images of the inside of your brain. You may be referred to a ‘memory clinic’ that specializes in diagnosing conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease medication and medicine
Medicines called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are used to help people with moderate Alzheimer’s disease. However, they aren’t very effective and most people get little benefit from them. They may slow down the progression of symptoms and delay the need for residential care. Your doctor may prescribe one of the three acetylcholinesterase inhibitors available:
1. Donepezil (Aricept).
3. Rivastigmine (Exelon).
3. Galantamine (Reminyl).
Another medicine, memantine (Ebixa), is for people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. However, there isn’t enough evidence to show that memantine is effective and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that doctors don’t prescribe it. Memantine may be available for some people who are taking part in a clinical trial.
Sometimes, antidepressant medicines are prescribed to help treat the depression that can be associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Your doctor may prescribe tranquilizers, which can help with the behavioral problems of Alzheimer’s disease such as irritability and aggression.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care.