Currently, Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 5 million Americans and is ranked as the sixth top reason of death in the United States. More recent studies suggest it may outrank heart disease and cancer, making it the third leading cause. Even though Alzheimer’s affects more women than men, it is more likely to occur to anyone in their mid-sixties. This disease sounds scary, but if you know about the symptoms and treatments, you can better help your future self and older relatives.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and irreversible brain disorder that slowly destroys the thinking and memory skills. A person with Alzheimer’s may forget their own children and have difficulty carrying out the simplest tasks. It is the most common form of dementia — the loss of cognitive functioning such as thinking, remembering, and reasoning — among seniors. In fact, Alzheimer’s accounts for around 60% to 80% of dementia cases.
Plaques and tangles in the brain are some of the main features of Alzheimer’s, along with the loss of connections between neurons, which send messages from the brain to other organs. Initial damage seems to occur in the hippocampus, also known as the portion of our brains that is essential for creating memories. As more neurons perish, more parts of the brains shrink. In the last stage of the disease, the damage is widespread, and the brain tissue has noticeably shrunk.
Most obviously, age is the prime risk factor, since many people with Alzheimer’s are age sixty-five and over. However, one can get early-onset Alzheimer’s, which affects an estimated 200,000 Americans under sixty-five. Most people with early-onset are in their 40s or 50s.
Genetics is a proven risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, both normal and early-onset. Two types of genes, called risk genes and deterministic genes, help impact whether a person develops a disease. In this case, Alzheimer’s genes have been detected in both types. Heredity goes along with genetics because this disease tends to run in the family, especially if more than one family member had or has it.
While most risk factors are associated with age and genetics, recent research suggests there could be others. Head injuries and any cardiovascular diseases (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure) have a connection to future risk of dementia. Furthermore, research claims Latinos and African Americans are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than older whites, though the exact reason is unknown.
It’s important to note that Alzheimer’s has three distinct stages: mild, moderate and severe. A person with the disease will experience all three because it gradually worsens. Symptoms differ depending on the stage.
A person with mild Alzheimer’s disease may appear healthy but trouble making sense of his or her surroundings. Signs include memory loss, poor judgment (leading to bad choices), no sense of initiative, repeating questions, misplacing things, wandering/getting lost, and mood or personality changes including increased anxiety and/or aggression. This stage merits a proper diagnosis of the disease.
A person with moderate Alzheimer’s disease needs more supervision and care. Symptoms include increased general confusion and memory loss, inability to learn new things, difficulty with all aspects of language (speaking, reading, writing), disorganized thinking, short attention span, improper coping mechanisms, failure to recognize family and friends, restlessness, hallucinations, and inappropriate outbursts of anger. Although these symptoms are more severe, do not confuse Alzheimer’s with the natural forgetfulness that comes with aging. Making a bad decision occasionally or missing a monthly payment is normal, whereas several of these occurrences in a row is not normal.
A person with severe Alzheimer’s disease is completely dependent on others for care. The third and final stage comes with physical ailments as well, so the person may be mostly bedridden. Symptoms include the inability to communicate, weight loss, skin infections, difficulty swallowing, seizures, and loss of bowel/bladder control.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) share similar symptoms with Alzheimer’s. Even though MCI could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, not everyone with MCI will develop it. The biggest difference is that people with MCI can still function independently. Symptoms of MCI include losing things often, speech problems, and forgetting to attend planned events or appointments.
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s now, and research is still being conducted to find out more about its causes and ways to prevent it. Specific medications may help control or delay symptoms in the mild stage, and other drug treatments can help manage the emotional side effects. Behavioral or environmental strategies that help reduce stress may reduce the anxiety and conditions from the disease.
Antidepressants can help reduce anxiety and depression, but doctors aren’t quick to prescribe medications before looking into behavioral therapies. Because of the anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, and misunderstanding of Alzheimer patients, non-medical intervention might be a more appropriate treatment. These therapies involve creating a calm environment without noise or directions, maintaining a routine, providing a security object or favorable activity, and ensuring the patient’s personal comfort at all times.
The four drugs approved by the FDA to regulate or manage Alzheimer’s symptoms are Aricept® (donepezil), Exelon® (rivastigmine), Cognex® (tacrine), and Razadyne® (galantamine). These drugs will address the low levels of acetylcholine, an important brain chemical for cognitive function, in Alzheimer’s patients. Cognex® is not used as often due to its side effects.
Another approved drug called Namenda® (memantine) treats moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. This drug can assist in protecting the brain’s nerve cells against too much glutamate. Namzaric® is a combination of donepezil and memantine, and its capsules can be opened and sprinkled onto foods for patients who have trouble swallowing.
Coming to terms with Alzheimer’s disease can be emotionally difficult. Knowing the early signs will help you catch the disease early on so you can seek treatment right away. You should also know that you are not alone, and you can reach out to hotlines and support groups if you or a loved one is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s.