What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, Alzheimer’s disease is defined as a brain disorder that cripples the neurons or nerve cells, leaving the sufferer with short-term memory loss and the loss of certain brain functions. This generally results in a degeneration of reasoning and language skills. It can also result in changes in key personality traits and behaviors.
As more and more brain cells die, the patient’s social and behavioral skills decline. Currently, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s.
SEE ALSO: Alzheimer’s: Recognizing the Signs
What Causes Alzheimer’s?
Current Alzheimer’s research indicates that there are several factors that can lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Some of these factors have been narrowed down to age, damage to nerve cells due to oxidation by free radicals, environmental factors, head traumas and injuries, inflammations of the brain and genetic factors. Of all of these factors, age has been named the top risk factor for a person developing Alzheimer’s Disease. These factors, either alone or combined, have been found to occur commonly among victims of the disease.
The Alzheimer’s Brain
A common practice in Alzheimer’s research includes examining the brains of Alzheimer’s patients after their passing. Findings of these researches have concluded that sufferers of this disease have plaques, shrinkage and a misshaping of the brain. Although they do not fully understand the process by which these commonalities occur, doctors have indicated that these common traits are implicit in causing the disease.
Plaques found during autopsies were made of the beta amyloid protein. This protein interferes with communications between cells and is suspected of causing the death of brain cells. Shrinkage and the misshaping of the brain happen as a protein called tau builds into tangled masses in the brain.
Is Alzheimer’s Genetic?
There are mainly two types of Alzheimer’s; type one is known as sporadic Alzheimer’s, which can affect anyone, and type two is known as FAD, or Familial Alzheimer’s Disease. Genetics are named as a factor of the second type of Alzheimer’s, as FAD has distinctive genetic patterns. It is however a rare form of the disease and only occurs in around ten percent of sufferers. For those that have a family history of FAD, the most at-risk ages are between 30 and 60.
FAD has been narrowed down to chromosomes 1, 21 and 14, where mutations in these chromosomes have been found to be common factors in Alzheimer’s sufferers. Scientists are also looking at mutations in chromosome 10 as a possible factor in the late onset of Alzheimer’s.
Other genetic factors include chromosome 19, where studies have indicated that an inheritance of a specific gene on chromosome 19 can increase the risk of developing FAD.
What is the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Dementia is generally characterized by a sub-group of symptoms, such as the loss of higher function motor skills, the loss of memory, the loss of language skills and a variety of other functions. Dementia occurs when the nerve cells in the brain die or are permanently damaged.
Dementia is a common symptom in Alzheimer’s patients, due to the progressive brain damage caused by the disease. It is also a common symptom of other diseases and disorders, including strokes, drug and alcohol abuse and traumas that result in a loss or blockage of blood flow to the brain.
The difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s is defined by the condition. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that affects the body and brain of the patient in a patterned and predictable fashion. Dementia is a common term for a variety of symptoms that span a number of diseases and conditions. Dementia is more commonly known as a symptom of a disease, rather than a disease in itself.
Early Onset Alzheimer’s
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a person can notice forgetfulness or confusion that is not characteristic. These symptoms can progress. Sometimes, it is family members and friends that notice changes before the victim, as mentioned in this article on the National Institute on Aging website.
While anyone can have lapses in memory, such as forgetting where they put their grocery list or car keys, memory loss due to Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition that gets worse as time goes by. Alzheimer’s sufferers characteristically forget the names of their family members and close friends. They also forget the names of common objects. They are known to put their possessions in uncommon and hard-to-find places. They will also forget that they have had conversations or that they have asked questions or made statements, leading them to repeat themselves. Alzheimer’s patients will miss appointments and events routinely because they forget about them.
Confusion is also noted as an early symptom because of the forgetfulness and because sufferers have some difficulty finding the right words to express themselves. They can struggle with remembering the names of objects they see every day. Due to the forgetfulness and confusion, they can also find it extremely difficult to take an active part in the conversations around them, leaving them feeling isolated or separated from loved ones. Confusion is also caused when the disease makes it hard to think, reason and concentrate.
Symptoms of Advanced Alzheimer’s
The rate of deterioration amongst sufferers may vary. However, as the disease progresses, patients can lose the ability to read and write. They can also lose the ability to balance a checkbook, pay bills on time or even to recognize numbers.
As time passes, patients will lose their ability to remember the day of the week or even the month or the year. They aren’t able to tell what season it is or remember recent life changes, such as a move to an assisted living facility. Alzheimer’s can also rob an individual of the ability to recognize his or her surroundings, making it extremely difficult to understand the setting he or she is in. This is responsible for patients becoming confused and scared in familiar settings.
Alzheimer patients should not be left alone as the disease progresses. Alzheimer’s will affect the patient’s ability to take care of himself or herself while impairing judgment and affecting reasoning skills. Simple tasks, such as bathing or dressing can become difficult or impossible. More complex tasks, such as cooking or driving may pose more of a challenge than the patient is prepared to meet. In advanced stages, most patients are unable to tend to or care for themselves at all.
Those with advanced Alzheimer’s will also undergo behavioral and personality changes. This is due to the changes that occur in the brain as the disease progresses. With these changes, patients may experience mood swings and withdrawal from social situations. They can experience uncharacteristic anxiety, depression, a new mistrust for others, and aggressive behavior and irritability. Changes in behavior can also include wandering, changes in lifelong habits, including sleeping and a loss of inhibitions. They can also experience delusions, such as a belief that their property has been stolen or that someone is trying to hurt them.
Characteristically, advanced stage Alzheimer’s patients will suffer the loss of learned skills. However, it is only in the advanced stages that these skills are no longer accessible. Once enjoyed past times, such as dancing, crafts, story-telling, reading, singing and enjoying favorite movies and music are lost, but only in very advanced cases. This is because it takes longer for the skills a person learned early in life to be lost due to the way the brain changes in Alzheimer’s. It is suggested that those with these skills are encouraged to continue practicing them as long as possible as a way to maintain a higher standard of living and to continue to experience successes, even while dealing with the disease in other areas of life.
You can read more about the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in this article on the Alzheimer’s Association website.
As research into a cure for Alzheimer’s continues, people are seeking ways to prevent the disease altogether. While there is no known cure for it at present, there is some hope in evidence that suggests a link between heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, as mentioned in this article on WebMD.com.
Although there has been no definitive proof, experts have found that there are some common traits shared between heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. These traits are factors that increase a person’s risk of heart disease and vascular dementia, seeming to lead to Alzheimer’s. These factors can include diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and high blood cholesterol.
As a possible preventative measure, experts are suggesting a targeted approach. This approach is aimed at those that are most at risk for dementia. However, anyone can participate with a doctor’s approval.
The suggested approach for possibly preventing Alzheimer’s is to follow a program that keeps the participant active on several levels: physically, mentally and socially. It also requires following a healthy diet. Participants are encouraged to engage in exercise, cognitive stimulation activities and to remain socially active. Cognitive stimulation activities are group sessions in which participants are given mental stimulation exercises in a group setting. This helps with cognitive functions, as well as providing some social interaction. It has traditionally been used for those suffering mild dementia.
Here are some helpful tips from Prevention.com.
Alzheimer’s patients are treated with drugs and with environmental controls geared towards making them feel comfortable and safe. The drugs that have been developed for Alzheimer’s patients are Cholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine or Namenda. The list of Cholinesterase inhibitors includes Aricept, or donepezil, Razadyne, or glanatamine and Exelon, or rivastigmine. These are effective because they supplement a chemical in the brain that is responsible for communication between cells. Unfortunately, these drugs work for less than half of the people that take them. For those that these drugs do work for, their symptoms have been found to be slower in progressing to moderate or severe Alzheimer’s.
Memantine, or Namenda, works by slowing the advancement of the symptoms for those with moderate or advanced Alzheimer’s. It works by targeting a different network of brain cells, aiding in their communications. It has been known to work in combination with one of the Cholinesterase inhibitor’s.
In addition to the drugs, Alzheimer’s sufferers need to have a stable home environment that they feel safe and secure in. Due to the changes in the brain, patients can become extremely upset, aggressive or scared over seemingly small and unimportant occurrences.
Caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients are encouraged to take certain steps to minimize the stress in their daily lives. These steps include keeping commonly used objects, such as mobile devices, wallets and keys in the same place, keeping them from being lost. Families are also encouraged to reduce the number of mirrors in a home because Alzheimer’s sufferers find mirrors frightening and confusing.
Although there is no one cure, Alzheimer’s can be managed and treated. The treatments and medicines can serve to provide years of time with loved ones that were not previously available to families. There are also ample resources online that can help you better understand and live with Alzheimer’s, whether you suffer from it personally or live with someone who does. The Alzheimer’s Society UK website is one.