As we get older, it’s easy to forget the name of an acquaintance, misplace car keys or struggle to make simple decisions. However, there comes a point where the normal forgetfulness of aging gives way to a more serious decrease of our mental function. When this happens, Alzheimer’s disease could be developing.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that affects brain neurons. It is the most common cause of dementia, causing 60 to 80 percent of cases. Alzheimer’s disease results in memory loss, decrease of thinking and language skills and causes behavioral changes. These mental struggles are often serious enough to greatly interfere with daily life.
Wellness & Prevention
The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, but there are several lifestyle changes you can make that may prevent the onset of symptoms:
- Increasing amounts of exercise
- Keeping a healthy and balanced diet
- Regularly performing mentally stimulating activities like reading, solving puzzles and regular social activity
Early assessment is the key to effective management of Alzheimer’s. Those affected are often unaware of the extent of their own condition. Monitoring the behavior of loved ones who you feel may be at risk for developing the disease is necessary to detect symptoms as they appear.
There are several factors that can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. The most common risk factors include:
- Age: Most people living with Alzheimer’s are above the age of 65. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after age 65.
- Family history and genetics: Alzheimer’s tends to run in families. Risks increase if more than one family member has had the disease.
To diagnose Alzheimer’s, a careful review of the individual’s medical history and symptoms must be performed. This includes a review of their day-to-day function and behavior. Doctors may also order tests to measure thinking skills such as memory, language skills and problem solving.
Other tests that may be done to diagnose Alzheimer’s include brain imaging scans. These tests may be used to get photos of the brain and check for strokes, bleeding or tumors.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI scans use magnets and a computer in order to take photos of the brain.
- Computerized Tomography (CT): A combination of X-rays used to create a complete cross-section of the brain.
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET): PET scans use tracing chemicals to check for problems in the brain and test brain function. Newer PET scans can detect proteins in the brain that are known to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Additionally, laboratory tests may also be done to rule out other problems that can affect brain function, including nutritional problems or thyroid issues.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease increase over time. Memory loss is mild in its early stages but worsens as the disease progresses. Alzheimer’s disease causes people to lose the ability to communicate and respond effectively to their environment.
The stages of the disease are grouped into three stages:
Mild Alzheimer’s: The mildest form of this disease can be hard to diagnose. Forgetfulness and difficulty making decisions can seem like symptoms of the normal aging process. Early stage symptoms can include:
- Forgetting things you’ve recently learned
- Having trouble with complex tasks, like paying bills
- Difficulty putting your thoughts into words
- Feeling anti-social, moody or depressed
Moderate Alzheimer’s: As the disease progresses, the individual experiences greater losses of language skills and memory. Symptoms will worsen and often involve:
- Difficulty recognizing friends or loved ones
- Forgetting life details, such as home address or phone number
- Jumbled words or difficulty forming sentences
- Getting lost, even in familiar areas
- Having poor judgment about health and safety
Behavioral symptoms often begin to appear in moderate stage Alzheimer’s, such as increased paranoia, anger or violent tendencies, depression and anxiety.
Moderate stage Alzheimer’s can make living on your own very difficult. People living with Alzheimer’s disease will often need a caregiver to help them manage their activities of daily life.
Severe Alzheimer’s: When the disease reaches its most advanced stages, memory and cognitive function are greatly impaired. Symptoms of the advanced stage can include:
- Limited speech or vocabulary
- Diminished motor function, including walking or sitting upright
- Loss of bowel and bladder control
- Severe difficulty remembering familiar faces or names
- Personality changes
- Formation of compulsive habits, like wringing hands or shredding tissues
At this point, people are able to live on their own. They will need extensive help with their daily activities and personal care.
Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, but treatments are available to manage and temporarily slow the worsening of its symptoms. Therapies are generally aimed at symptom management and improving quality of life.
Current therapy options involve:
- Using medications to increase certain brain chemicals that are known to affect our memory, thought and judgement
- Changes to the environment to reduce clutter and distracting noises
- Dividing tasks into easier steps and focusing on successful completion of goals
- Changing caregiver responses to decrease agitation and giving positive support
These therapies have been successful at creating structure and routine for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Managing the environment is a helpful way to reduce confusion and improve quality of life.
Alzheimer’s can be a very difficult disease to live with. People with this disease will usually need help managing their routines. As the symptoms worsen, they may need to live with a caregiver or in an assisted living home. The emotional and mental difficulties that men and women with Alzheimer’s face will require the support and understanding of their friends and loved ones.
While the causes of Alzheimer’s aren’t well-understood, research efforts are underway to find better ways to treat Alzheimer’s. For now, the best way to handle the disease is to delay its onset and manage the symptoms as they arise.