Living with Alzheimer’s disease can be tough. If you or someone you know is suffering from increasing memory loss, understanding Alzheimer’s can make it a little easier. Up to 70% percent of all cases of dementia (progressive memory loss) are attributed to Alzheimer’s disease. It is a progressive condition that targets the brains neurons. Sufferers experience increasing memory loss, cognitive dysfunction, and changes in behavior. It can affect the sufferer, their loved ones, and others close to them. Without good information on the disease, it can be very hard to cope. To date, there has been no cure found for the disease. Treatments can help slow the progression of memory loss and help patients experience a better quality of life.
Description & Cause of Alzheimer's Disease
This disease causes neurons in the brain to stop working. On MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) doctors can see actual “lesions” in the brain tissue. The chemicals that help the brain cells communicate break down and things go haywire. Researchers have not yet pinpointed the exact cause.
Progressive Memory Loss It starts with short-term memory which includes simple things like where you put your car keys or shoes. The ability to recall names or things that just occurred is affected. It then progresses to long-term memories, names of people very close to you, and the ability to know the date, place, and time. The severity of the disease is seen when sufferers forget important activities of daily living and the health begins to decline.
Loss of Speech The ability to speak is lost and they may understand you, but cannot recall the words to use in order to answer. You may also notice words getting mixed up such as using the word “apple” for “light switch.” In later stages, Alzheimer’s patients stop speaking completely.
Loss of Motor Skills Motor skills become impaired at first and then lost in the final stages. Simple tasks like putting a coat on and writing are lost first. As the disease progresses important functions like swallowing and bladder control are lost.
Loss of the Five Senses In the end stages, they may not understand sensations from any of the senses. They may not understand what they hear or interpret pain signals. They may not be able to process what they see, taste, or smell. One dangerous effect is not being able to remember the smell of smoke when something is on fire.
Altered Behavior and Moods You may walk in one day to see them happy and smiling, the next day they are mean and angry.
Risk Factors of Alzheimer's Disease
Risk factors increase the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease and these include:
Genetics If you have a close relative, parent, or sibling suffering from Alzheimer’s, you may also suffer from the disease.
Advanced Age The risk for Alzheimer’s increases after the age of 65. There have been cases in people under 65.
Women The disease is more common in women, but men get it too.
Major Head Injuries People who suffer head trauma are at higher risk.
Chromosome Disorders People who have chromosome disorders, such as Down syndrome, seem to acquire Alzheimer’s in the mid-life stages between 30 and 40 years of age.
The doctor will take a thorough family and medical history. It is important to understand not all cases of memory loss are due to Alzheimer’s or dementia. There can be other causes, so a good medical examination along with lab tests needs to be done. If tests for a physical cause are ruled out, the doctor will progress to the following testing:
Mental Status Examination Testing for cognitive functions and thought processes.
Imaging Looking for “lesions” or plaques on the brain tissue.
Further Neurological Testing This can show what parts of the brain are intact and working properly or are failing.
Diagnosis is usually made by grouping together all the findings to make the correct diagnosis. No one single test can diagnose the disease at this time.
Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, it is manageable with drugs to help slow its progression. Research is ongoing for better treatments and improving sufferer’s lives. Treatments include:
Medication. Since the main issue with Alzheimer’s is how the “chemical messenger’s” work between brain cells, there are medications that can increase their function. This does not stop damage to brain cells, but helps them work better. Commonly prescribed drugs include cholinesterase inhibitors such as donepezil (Aricept) and memantine (Namenda). Doctor’s may need to add sedatives like diazepam (Valium) or lorazepam (Ativan ) for behavioral changes. Depression and anxiety may be treated with antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications.
Currently, researchers are looking at new drugs that prevent plaques form forming in the first place and reducing inflammation in brain tissue.
Alternative Treatments and Tips for Alzheimer's Disease
While it is not completely known how effective alternative therapies are, many people have found the following to be helpful:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Always consult your doctor before using any herbal or alternative treatments. Herbs can have interactions with other medications and side effects.
At this time, it isn’t known what can prevent the disease from starting. Certain lifestyle factors can be changed to help reduce the risks. This includes; quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake, and eating a healthy low-fat diet.
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