The Basics of Alzheimer’s Disease
Currently, there are an estimated 5.8 million American’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and it’s the sixth-largest cause of death throughout the country. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts that by the year 2050, there will be 13.8 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease.
But what is Alzheimer’s, exactly? At its core, Alzheimer’s is a severe brain disorder that virtually eradicates all memory and cognitive function over time. It’s been discovered that the root cause of Alzheimer’s is cell death resulting from amyloid and tau proteins building up in the human brain.
While it’s definitely been around much longer, Alzheimer’s wasn’t discovered until 1906. At the time of discovery, a German neuropathologist and psychiatrist named Alois Alzheimer examined the body of a woman who’d recently passed to determine the cause of death. During his examination, Alzheimer noticed protein clumps and an assortment of tangled fibers in the woman’s brain. It was concluded that the presence of these brain growths was what resulted in the woman’s documented memory loss, behavioral issues, speech problems, and death.
Different Types of Alzheimer’s
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease ultimately will exhibit the same symptoms; however, there are three different known types of the disease:
- Familial Alzheimer’s Disease – Familial Alzheimer’s disease (FAD) occurs when there are links to the disease within one family’s genes. This is the rarest form of Alzheimer’s.
- Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease – Early-onset Alzheimer’s is classified as such when the person diagnosed is under age 65.
- Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease – Late-onset Alzheimer’s is classified as such when the person diagnosed is over age 65.
Unfortunately, there is a long list of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s that get worse as the disease progresses. Here are the most commonly associated symptoms with this brain disease:
- Item displacement
- Memory loss
- Loss of direction
- Time confusion
- Conversation and question repetition
- Trouble with or inability to perform daily tasks
- Reduced ability to recognize friends and family
- Severe personality and behavioral changes
- Challenges with walking
- Challenges with talking
- Difficulties with eating, drinking, and swallowing
- Challenges with reading and writing
- Challenges with numbers
- Poor judgment skills
Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s Disease
Currently, the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease are still being studied. However, scientists believe that the risk factors listed below can contribute to developing the disease:
- Prior Family History – Those with relatives who have Alzheimer’s are believed to have a more substantial chance of developing the disease themselves.
- Head Injury – Traumatic brain injuries have been linked to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Heart Problems – Because the brain is reliant on healthy blood flow from the heart, if there are heart problems that potentially cause decreased blood flow, it’s believed that risk may be heightened.
- Gender – It’s been shown that women tend to develop Alzheimer’s at a more rapid rate than their male counterparts.
- Down Syndrome – Those with down syndrome have shown a predisposition to developing the brain disease around age 30 or 40.
- Age – As adults age, the chances of developing Alzheimer’s increases, especially after age 65.
- Genetics – Gene studies are still being conducted. However, the APOE-e4 variant is thought to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s development when present.
When Alzheimer’s is suspected, it’s important to contact a physician to set up an appointment as soon as possible. Physicians will conduct the following tests to determine if it’s believed that the patient has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to note that Alzheimer’s cannot receive an exact diagnosis until after the patient is deceased; this is due to the necessity of brain study to conclude the presence of contributing proteins.
Here’s what can be expected during the Alzheimer’s diagnosis process:
- Family History – Many doctors will begin by taking an extensive family history of the patient. Questions pertaining to currently experienced symptoms, employment history, sexual history, marital status, and more will generally be asked.
- Mental Fitness Testing – During a mental fitness test, physicians will check memory, math skills, reading skills, writing skills, and general problem-solving capabilities.
- MRI – By using an MRI to gain a closer look through body imaging, physicians can determine if there are other possible factors other than Alzheimer’s causing the patient’s symptoms.
- Neuropsychological Testing – This form of testing takes a closer look at the patient’s abilities as related to their brain function.
- CT Testing – CT testing is used to check for possible brain changes that can indicate Alzheimer’s.
How Alzheimer’s Disease is Treated
At this time, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. That being said, various treatment methods can potentially delay symptoms from worsening and help patients and families manage symptoms.
- Medications – There are currently five medications as listed on the National Institute of Health (NIH) website that are approved for use in slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s. Medications in this group can assist with things like preventing further acetylcholine breakdown in the brain and blocking toxic effects caused by large amounts of glutamate being produced. Various medications to treat associated depression and anxiety can also be prescribed.
- Non-Medication Treatments – There is a wide variety of various therapies and activities used to help those with Alzheimer’s cope symptoms and delay progression. Alzheimer’s-targeted counseling, therapy, and group therapy sessions are often used. Activities to keep brain function engaged and to help motor function, such as exercises and puzzles, are also widely popular.
Can Alzheimer’s Be Prevented?
There is no known guaranteed method used to prevent Alzheimer’s; however, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2019 showing that Alzheimer’s risk may be reduced by 32 percent for those who follow a healthy lifestyle. Things like reducing alcohol consumption, eating a balanced diet, quitting smoking, and getting regular exercise are recommended.
Some research has also indicated that various vitamins and nutrients can potentially help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s development. For instance, vitamin D is thought to possibly help with brain health, and antioxidants may reduce the presence of cell-damaging molecules.