Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disorder that results in a loss of intellectual and social abilities; it affects memory, thinking and behavior. It is the most common form of dementia, interfering with the functioning of more than 5 million people in the United States alone. With the aging American population, Alzheimer's is expected to affect as many as three times that number during the coming decades. While aging is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's, severe memory loss is not a natural part of the aging process.
Causes of Alzheimer's Disease
The underlying cause of Alzheimer's disease is unknown, but a combination of genetic and environmental factors seems to put individuals at risk for developing it. It is known that the brains of Alzheimer's patient are smaller than normal, and show an abnormal accumulation of protein in amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the tissues. These accumulations interfere with normal brain functioning, and eventually cause brain cells to die.
Early-onset Alzheimer's disease, which strikes patients between the ages of 30 and 60, and is responsible for only about 5 percent of cases of the disorder, is known to have a genetic link. Scientists have also found genes that predispose certain patients to developing late-onset Alzheimer's. Environmental factors possibly involved in the development of Alzheimer's are currently being investigated; they include obesity, diabetes and various vascular disorders. Some studies show that eating a nutritious diet and engaging in physical exercise, mentally stimulating activities and social interactions may decrease the risk for developing the disease.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may include:
- Memory loss
- Loss of language skills
- Personality changes
- Misplacing or losing things
- Inability to complete simple tasks
- Lack of judgment
Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease often develop gradually and may not be noticed until they progress. Memory loss is usually the first sign of the disorder.
Stages of Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease has been divided into three stages, although the length of each stage may differ from patient to patient. The earliest stage of the disease, prior to diagnosis, may be indistinguishable from simple age-related memory loss or from mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which may or may not develop into Alzheimer's disease.
Mild Alzheimer's Disease
As the disease progresses, not only does memory loss worsen, but other cognition-related problems, such as getting lost more easily and having trouble making simple monetary exchanges, become evident. During this stage, patients may repeat questions, exercise poor judgment and have difficulty completing sequential tasks, even familiar ones. Patients are often diagnosed during this stage of the disease.
Moderate Alzheimer's Disease
During this stage of the disease, memory loss and confusion worsen, and patients may have difficulty recognizing familiar people and places. They may be unable to learn new tasks, and become confused trying to complete simple daily tasks, such as getting dressed or going to the bathroom. They may behave irrationally or impulsively. New situations may cause them to become frightened or angry. Patients with moderate Alzheimer's may have hallucinations or delusions, or may become paranoid, feeling that others are trying to do them harm.
Severe Alzheimer's Disease
Patients with severe Alzheimer's lose the ability to communicate, and to control their bodily functions. During this stage, they are completely dependent, unable to feed or toilet themselves. In the last stages of the disease, they may require intensive care as they lose the ability to hold their heads up, move or swallow. Eventually, Alzheimer's patients die of the disease.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease
When Alzheimer's disease is suspected, a full medical examination is performed. The doctor typically conducts cognitive tests to check memory; problem-solving ability; simple mathematical skills; and language ability. Beyond these, diagnostic tests, including blood and urine tests, and CT scans and MRI scans of the brain, are performed to rule out other causes, such as stroke or side effects of medication, for the patient's symptoms.
Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer's. There are, however, several treatments available to help manage symptoms and slow its progression. Medications that regulate neurotransmitters, assisting in the transmission of messages among neurons (brain cells) are often prescribed. These include medications such as Aricept® and Exelon®, which may help maintain mental clarity, memory and speaking skills, and can help with certain behavioral problems.
Other medications, such as tranquilizers or anti-depressants, may improve the behavior and quality of life for some Alzheimer's patients. Clinical trials are underway to help determine whether immunization therapy, physical exercise, cognitive training, or the administration of antioxidants helps to slow the progression of the disease.
It is important for people with Alzheimer's to continue participating in and enjoying daily activities as much as possible. Despite cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's patients still enjoy affection and spending time with others. A sturdy support system for both the patient and caregiver can enhance treatment.