Alzheimer’s Disease is a common phenomenon happening amongst the elderly, and it takes a toll both on the patient, as well as the people around them.
It is not to be assumed that it will never happen to certain people, but here is some information for you to have more than an idea of the disease and what you can do when it happens to a loved one or a close relative.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease
Before we delve deeper into what Alzheimer’s Disease is, it is important to know that it is not the same as another common term: Dementia.
Dementia is a syndrome (a group of related symptoms) associated with an ongoing decline or the loss of brain functioning. It can affect memory, thinking & reasoning skills and other mental abilities like problem-solving or language. It also affects behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
Alzheimer’s Disease on the other hand is the most common cause of dementia among older adults and is a physical disease that affects the brain. Named after Alois Alzheimer (the doctor who first described it), Alzheimer’s is irreversible and a progressive disease.
This means that over time, more parts of the brain are damaged and slowly affects memory, thinking & reasoning skills, and eventually, affects the ability to carry out the simplest and ordinary tasks like move around, swallow and feed yourself.
While the disease destroys nerve connections and devastates the brain, it does not kill you. According to the Alzheimer's Society, weight loss and other complications from Alzheimer's can lead to a weakened immune system. As informed by the National Institute on Aging, this increases a person's susceptibility to potentially life-threatening infections.
The complications of the decline in brain function affects the other functions of the body which is what slowly leads to death.
Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
Our brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that connect to each other. Scientifically, Alzheimer's Disease is thought to be caused by the abnormal build-up of proteins in and around brain cells called ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’.
One of the proteins involved is called amyloid - deposits of which form plaques around brain cells. The other protein is called tau - deposits of which form tangles within brain cells. The formation of these abnormal chunks will cause the connections between the nerve cells to be lost.
Even so, there is no specific or exact cause of Alzheimer's Disease, but there are other factors that might increase the risk of developing the disease. These include:
- Increasing age (those 65 years of age or older) – best known risk factor.
- Family history – genetics may play a role in developing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Lifestyle factors & conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol associated with or may lead to cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke).
- Untreated depression – can also be one of the symptoms.
People with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease (aged 40 – 65) may be caused by a genetic mutation. On the other hand, late-onset Alzheimer’s arises from a complex series of brain changes that occur over decades. The causes probably include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
It differs from person to person in which these stated factors may influence in the increased or decreased risk of developing the Alzheimer’s Disease.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
In most people with the disease – those with the late-onset type – symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. As Alzheimer’s Disease is progressive, the symptoms will develop gradually over many years and eventually become more severe and affect multiple brain functions.
Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include memory loss, language problems, and impulsive or unpredictable behavior. The earliest and first sign of Alzheimer’s Disease is usually minor memory problems like forgetting recent conversations or events, or even forgetting names of places and objects.
For many, there are also the common symptoms of decline in non-memory aspects of cognition, such as word-finding, vision/ spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment.
Though it doesn’t seem like something out of the ordinary, the memory problems will become more severe. People who have Alzheimer’s Disease will display additional symptoms and certain change in behaviour that will worsen over time:
- Confusion, disorientation about time and getting lost in familiar places
- Trouble with familiar day-to-day tasks
- Decreased judgement, difficulty planning or making decisions
- Mood & personality changes, such as anxiety, becoming aggressive, demanding and being suspicious of others (inclusive of family members),
- Hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there) and delusions (believing things that are untrue)
- Problems moving around without assistance or performing self-care tasks
- Problems with speech and language
- Decreased personal hygiene
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and community
For some cases, other occurring conditions like a stroke, delirium or other related infections can worsen the symptoms. Certain medicines can also cause symptoms to worsen.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
Because Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive disease, this means the symptoms will gradually worsen over time.
The first few symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease in the earlier stages vary from person to person. To understand the severity and the progressive decline of cognitive health caused by Alzheimer’s Disease, here is a chart where it is broken down into seven stages:
|Stage 3||Stage 4|
|No symptoms yet but there might be an early diagnosis based on family history.||The earliest symptoms appear, such as forgetfulness.||
Mild physical and mental impairments appear, such as reduced memory and concentration.
These may only be noticeable by someone very close to the person.
Alzheimer’s Disease is often diagnosed at this stage, but it’s still considered mild.
Memory loss and the inability to perform everyday tasks is evident.
|Stage 6||Stage 7|
|Moderate to severe symptoms that require help from loved ones or caregivers.||At this stage, a person with Alzheimer’s Disease may need help with basic tasks, such as eating and putting on clothes.||
This is the most severe and final stage of Alzheimer’s.
There may be a loss of speech and facial expressions. The patient is completely dependent on others for their care.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Reducing the Risk
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, nor is there a foolproof preventive measure. It is not possible to reverse the death of brain cells.
However, there is some research done that by focusing on overall healthy lifestyle habits like having physical, mental, and social activities, it may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and could contribute to the prevention of cognitive decline.
The following measures may also assist in decreasing the risk of getting Alzheimer’s:
- Quit smoking
- Maintain an active social life
- Exercise regularly
- Try cognitive training exercises
- Consume more antioxidants
Older people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s, but not all of them do. Some may even go back to normal cognition.
Some researchers have started studying biomarkers (biological signs of disease found in brain images, cerebrospinal fluid, and blood) to detect early changes in the brains of people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and in cognitively normal people who may be at greater risk for Alzheimer’s.
Studies indicate that such early detection is possible, but more research is needed before these techniques can be routinely used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in everyday medical practice.
Caring for People with Alzheimer’s Disease
Currently, many people living with Alzheimer’s Disease are cared for at home by family members with some additional help from other caregivers.
It has to be expected that caring for somebody with Alzheimer’s Disease at home can be a difficult task and might become overwhelming at times. Every day is a new challenge with changing levels of ability and new patterns of behaviour. As the disease gets worse, people living with Alzheimer’s disease often need more intensive care.
With proper treatment, it can help delay symptoms and improve quality of life. The treatment addresses several different areas:
- Maintaining mental functions
- Managing behavioral symptoms
- Slowing or delaying the symptoms of the disease
Need Assistance with Alzheimer’s?
We hope this article was able to assist you in understanding Alzheimer’s Disease a little better. Do you know somebody that has Alzheimer’s, or somebody who needs some help in caring for the disease? WhatsDoc has a range of experienced healthcare professionals that could assist further in this matter.