Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes significant problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. This disease is characterized by the slow development of symptoms that get worse over time, eventually becoming severe enough to interfere with all tasks associated with daily living. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which is a common term used for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities. Although the greatest risk factor for the development of dementia is increasing age, Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of the aging process.
Alzheimer’s disease gradually causes the connections between neurons and the neurons themselves to slowly deteriorate and die. This cell death leads to a progressive, steady decline in mental function and memory. The early stages of this disease are associated with mild memory loss; however as it progresses, people with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to respond to their environment.
Current research into management of Alzheimer’s disease involves treatment strategies that can lead to a temporary reduction of symptoms, allowing for maximum functioning and independence for as long as possible. Since early detection and treatment can delay the symptoms of the disease, it’s important that people who have Alzheimer’s disease are diagnosed and treated promptly. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are a great deal of support services for both people who have Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones.
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States; one in three seniors die of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for between 50% and 80% of cases of dementia. In 2013, an estimated 5.2 million Americans of all ages had Alzheimer’s disease, a number expected to grow exponentially over the next twenty years.
Causes and Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease
Researchers believe that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a number of risk factors combined with environmental causes. The most common risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease include:
Genetic: People who have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, most notably those who have a parent or sibling with the disease, are at a greater risk for developing the disorder. If more than one family member has this disease, the risk is even greater. Additionally, researchers have identified Alzheimer’s genes in both risk genes and deterministic genes.
Physical: The most common risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is advancing age, however getting older does not ensure that an individual will develop this disease. The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease approximately doubles every five years past the age of 65 until age 85, when the risk for developing the disorder reaches 50%. Since Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder, there are two types of abnormalities seen in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease: plaques and tangles. Plaques are clumps of beta-amyloid protein that destroy brain cells and interfere with proper cell-to-cell communication. Tangles of tau proteins abnormally twist inside brain cells, leading to failure in transportation of vital nutrients into the brain cells. Both lead to the development of Alzheimer’s.
- Mild cognitive impairment
- Lack of exercise
- Coronary artery disease
- Down syndrome
- Poorly controlled diabetes
- Lack of social engagement
- Being female
- Past head trauma
Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
As Alzheimer’s disease usually only affects people over the age of sixty who may already be experiencing cognitive changes as a result of the aging process, it can be challenging to know when a person has deviated from age-related memory changes to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to know the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as early detection and treatment produces the best results. The symptoms will vary in severity depending upon the stage of the disease an individual is currently in.
The most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Behavioral changes
- Repeats statements and questions, not realizing they’ve asked the question before
- Constantly misplaces possessions
- Challenges responding appropriately to everyday problems, such as getting lost in an unfamiliar area
- Difficulties planning, organizing, and executing daily tasks
- Withdrawing from once-enjoyable activities
- Loss of inhibitions
- Increased social isolation
- Trouble speaking or recalling words
- Difficulty chewing and swallowing food and drinks
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Changes in eating habits
- Challenges concentration and thinking
- Challenges using concepts like numbers; inability to recognize and use numbers properly
- Difficulties making needs known
- Difficulties with ambulation
- Frequent falls
- Difficulty recalling newly learned information
- Forgetting conversations, events, and appointments
- Deepening confusion about events
- Difficulties remembering family members and everyday objects
- Personality changes
- Unfounded paranoid suspicions about family and friends
- Irritability and aggressiveness
- Mood swings
Effects of Alzheimer’s Disease
Currently there is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, only treatments that can help some of the symptoms and slow down the progression. However, as this disease progresses, late-stage Alzheimer’s disease begins to affect nearly all areas of an individual’s life. The most commonly noted effects of Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Placement in safe, supportive living environment
- Decreased ability to communicate pain, report symptoms of an illness, or report medication side effects
- Inability to care for oneself
- Aspiration pneumonia caused by aspiration of food or liquids into the lungs
- Urinary incontinence
- Usage of urinary catheter, which can increase risks for urinary tract infections
- Risk for falls
- Serious injuries from falls, such as severe head trauma and fractured bones
- Development of depression or anxiety
Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease not only experience a multitude of health-related problems, but can have another mental health issue as well. Common co-occurring disorders may include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Substance abuse and addiction