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Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of all diagnosed cases of dementia. Alzheimer’s affects memory, behavior and thinking. Symptoms typically develop slowly and progressively worsen over time, eventually becoming severe enough to make the most basic of activities impossible to accomplish.

There are three types of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of the disease, typically occurs after the age of 65. At this time, the cause for late-onset Alzheimer’s is unknown.
  • Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease typically manifests when a person is in their 40s and 50s, although some are diagnosed even younger. It accounts for up to five percent of all Alzheimer’s cases. Those with Down syndrome have a higher risk of developing this form of Alzheimer’s. It typically develops much more quickly, with the average life expectancy being eight to 10 years following diagnosis. Early-onset has been linked to a specific defect in a person’s DNA affecting chromosome 14.
  • Familial Alzheimer’s disease is a form of Alzheimer’s that has a definite genetic component, positively linking it to a person’s genes where members of the family have been affected for at least two generations. Most people with early-onset Alzheimer’s also have familial Alzheimer’s. Familial Alzheimer’s makes up less than one percent of all Alzheimer’s cases.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Although everyone experiences “senior moments” as they get older and they may have some slowed thinking and memory recall, the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s are much more profound. Therefore, when a person experiences serious memory loss, confusion or other significant changes in the way their mind works, it’s a sign that brain cells are failing.

The most common early symptom is difficulty recalling newly learned facts and information since Alzheimer’s typically affects the hippocampus – the part of the brain associated with learning. Other symptoms generally include:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Problems remembering names or words
  • Disorientation, behavior and mood changes
  • Difficulty making sound or rational decisions
  • Increasing confusion about time, places and events
  • Difficulty solving common problems
  • Difficulty accomplishing familiar tasks or chores
  • Unfounded suspicions towards others
  • Eventual difficulty remembering who people are, even close family members
  • Profound memory loss, both long- and short-term is eventually affected
  • In the later stages, difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking is generally experienced

For those with early-onset Alzheimer’s, they may also experience myoclonus, a form of muscle twitching or spasm.

Brain or Physical Changes Associated with Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s progressively damages and destroys nerve cells in the brain. It also affects the cell’s ability to communicate with each other. The deterioration begins long before any evidence of memory loss is experienced.

Although most people develop abnormal structures in the brain called plaques and tangles, those with Alzheimer’s tend to develop many more than normal. These changes begin in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory) before spreading to other parts of the brain.

As brain cells are damaged and destroyed, the brain shrinks significantly, eventually affecting all (or nearly all) brain functions.

Causes/Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease

Although there is no known cause for Alzheimer’s disease, there are specific risk factors associated with the disease. These include:

  • Age: Age is the number one risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. One-third of all adults over the age of 84 will eventually develop Alzheimer’s
  • Heredity: If more than one family member has Alzheimer’s, risks of developing the disease increase significantly
  • Head Injury: The chances of developing the disease increase with repeated head injuries
  • Heart Health: Since the brain depends on the heart for its well-being, poor heart health detrimentally affects the brain
  • Habits: Tobacco usage, excessive alcohol consumption, poor dietary choices and lack of exercise all contribute to a person’s overall health including their chance of developing Alzheimer’s

Diagnosis, Treatment and Care of Alzheimer’s Disease

After performing a thorough medical evaluation, including blood work, physical exam and brain scans, your doctor will determine the presence of Alzheimer’s. Although there currently is no known cure for the disease and no way to stop its progression, medications can be used to lessen the symptoms (such as memory loss and confusion) for a limited time. Medications may also be prescribed to help with some of the behavioral symptoms associated with the disease, especially those that are severe, such as someone having the potential of harming themselves or others. However, these medications must be used carefully and are most effective when combined with non-drug approaches and therapies.

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