What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior.
Basics of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimers is the most common cause of dementia. It accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Alzheimers is not a normal part of aging. The greatest risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimers are 65 years old or older. Alzheimers is not just a disease of old age. Roughly 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have younger-onset Alzheimers disease. This disease worsens over time. It is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years.
In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimers, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversations and respond to their environment. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the US. Those with Alzheimers live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four years to 20 years, depending on the age and other health conditions.
There is no current cure for Alzheimers, but there are treatments for symptoms and the research is never ending. Although current treatments cannot stop Alzheimers from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve the quality of life for those with Alzheimers and their caregivers. Today, there is a worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay the onset, and prevent it from developing.
The most common symptom of Alzheimers is difficulty remembering newly learned information. As Alzheimers advances through the brain, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including:
- depression, irritability, aggressiveness, changes in sleeping habits, wandering
- mood and behavior changes
- repetition of statements and questions over and over without realizing
- getting lost in familiar places
- deepening confusion about events, time, and place
- unfounded suspicions about family, friends, and caregivers
- more serious memory loss and behavior changes
- difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking
- responding ineffectively to everyday problems
People with memory loss or other signs of Alzheimers may find it hard to recognize they have a problem. Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family and friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimers. It is not a part of normal aging, but your risk increases greatly after you reach age 65. The rate of dementia doubles every decade after age 60. Past head trauma can also increase your risk for developing Alzheimers disease.
Family history and genetics plays a role in the development of Alzheimers. Your risk is somewhat higher if a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, has the disease. Women are also more likely than men to develop Alzheimers disease, in part because they live longer.
Alzheimers is also common in people who have Down syndrome. Their signs and symptoms tend to appear 10 to 20 years sooner than they do for the general population. A gene contained in the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome significantly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
There is no lifestyle factor that has been definitively shown to reduce your risk of Alzheimers disease. However, some evidence shows that the same factors that put you at risk for heart disease also may increase the chance that you’ll develop Alzheimers. These include:
- Lack of exercise
- Smoking or exposure to second hand smoke
- High blood pressure
- Poorly controlled type 2 diabetes
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
These factors are also linked to vascular dementia, a type of dementia caused by damaged blood vessels in the brain. It is important to work with your health care team on a plan to control these factors to help protect your heart — and may also help reduce your risk of Alzheimers disease and vascular dementia.
Right now, there is no proven way to prevent Alzheimers disease. Research into prevention is ongoing. The strongest evidence so far suggests that you may be able to lower your risk of Alzheimers disease by reducing your risk of heart disease.
Keeping active – physically, mentally, and socially – may make your life more enjoyable and may also help reduce the risk of Alzheimers.
What happens in the brain?
Microscopic changes in the brain begin long before the first signs of memory loss. The brain has 100 billion nerve cells. Each nerve cell connects with many others to form a communication network. Groups have special jobs, including thinking, learning and remembering, helping us see, hear and smell. To do their work, they operate like tiny factories. They receive supplies, generate energy, construct equipment and get rid of waste. They process and store information and communicate with other cells.
Scientists believe that Alzheimers prevents parts of the factories from running well. They are unsure of where the trouble starts, but just like a real factory, backups and breakdowns in one system causes problems in other areas. As damage spreads, cells lose their ability to do their jobs and eventually die, causing irreversible changes in the brain.
As you can see, Alzheimer’s is not something that is enjoyable. It changes the life of the person suffering, as well as the family and friends of the person suffering. Coming from someone who works with people diagnosed with this disease, it is not easy to handle. Some days are better than others, and it is important to be understanding of the disease. If you think you may have Alzheimer’s disease, or think that someone close to you also has the disease, please see your doctor as soon as possible.
Thank you for reading! Make sure to look out for my next post! (: