Alzheimer’s Disease

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Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

Having your loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease is probably one of the most difficult news to process as the disease slowly changes the person we love and care so much about. Most likely, the affected person will not only suffer from memory loss, failure to recognize familiar people and places, problems with speaking, reading, understanding or writing, but also can his or her behavior change. People with Alzheimer’s Disease tend to become aggressive or anxious and may wander away from home.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. Even though scientists are learning more every day, there is no effective treatment available. Therefore, it is even more important to understand the disease and learn how to take care of your loved one once the diagnosis has been made.

Background Information on Alzheimer’s Disease

In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer, a German doctor, noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. His findings consisted of tangled bundles of fibers and abnormal clumps and both are now considered early signs of Alzheimer’s. Moreover, scientists have found lower levels of certain chemicals carrying messages back and forth between nerve cells in the brain and dying brain nerve cells in people affected by Alzheimer’s. All of these changes within the brain damage memory and mental abilities and impair thinking.

Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease

The causes of the disease are not yet fully understood. Scientists believe, however, that genetics could determine the likelihood of having Alzheimer’s.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s, for example, is an inherited rare form occurring between the ages of 30 – 60. In addition, having several risk factor genes within one family increases the chance of being affected as their interaction with non-genetic factors can cause the disease.

It has not yet been determined to what extent environment, diet or education affect the development of the disease. Nevertheless, evidence suggests that high cholesterol, high blood pressure and low levels of the vitamin folate increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Physical, social and mental activities, on the contrary, could represent protective factors against it.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s begins slowly making it hard to diagnose the disease in its early stages. Both forgetfulness and memory change are a normal part of the aging process after all.

However, people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease soon do not only experience problems with remembering recent events, activities or names of familiar people and places anymore. Instead, symptoms become more easily noticeable and attributable to the disease.

In the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, forgetfulness starts interfering with daily activities making living alone risky or even dangerous. Forgetting to brush one’s teeth and to comb one’s hair might not be severe changes, but soon people are not able to think clearly anymore. They fail to recognize their family, friends and places that were once so familiar to them. Moreover, they begin to experience problems with speaking, understanding, reading or writing. All these symptoms are enough to seek medical help and start thinking about senior care options.

Finally, people suffering from Alzheimer’s are not only affected by memory changes but behavioral changes also start occurring. They tend to become anxious or aggressive. Also, many people start wandering away from home, putting their environment or themselves at risk. Having said that, they need total care are not able to live by themselves anymore.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

Up to this day, there is no possibility to receive a definite diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Doctors can merely diagnose “possible” or “probable” Alzheimer’s while a person is still alive as only finding plaques and tangles in brain tissue proves the disease. This requires a brain tissue examination though and can only be performed during an autopsy once a person has died.

In order to diagnose the disease up to 90% of the time, doctors question about the person’s general health, past medical problems and ability to carry out daily activities.
In addition, the following help with the diagnosis:

  • Brain scans
  • Tests of memory
  • Problem solving, attention, counting and language tests
  • Medical tests regarding urine, blood and spinal fluid

In some rare cases, these tests help doctors find other possible causes of the persons’ Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. These could be, for example, drug reactions, brain tumors, thyroid problems and blood vessel disease in the brain. Some of these can then be treated successfully.

Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease

Whereas some disease progress rapidly, Alzheimer’s is a slow disease and how fast changes in memory and behavior occur depends on the person. Some people live from 8 to 10 years after having been diagnosed – others may live with it for 20 years.

Alzheimer’s cannot be cured and no treatment can stop the spread of the disease. There are, however, a few drugs that can prevent some symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time during the early and middle stages. Even though there is one approved drug to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, its effectiveness is limited.

Other medicines may help control behavioral symptoms such as:

  • Agitation
  • Sleeplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Wandering

Therefore, Alzheimer’s patients can be more comfortable and relaxed, making their care easier for caregivers.

For a demonstration regarding the spread of Alzheimer’s Disease, have a look at this video.

For more information, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association.