WHAT IS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE?
Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease in which the death of brain cells causes memory loss and cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive form of dementia. Most people with the disease are diagnosed after age 65. If it’s diagnosed before then, it’s generally referred to as early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are treatments that can slow the progression of the disease.
DEMENTIA VS ALZHEIMER’S:
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease aren’t the same. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia.
Dementia is an overall term used to describe symptoms that impact memory, performance of daily activities, and communication abilities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease gets worse with time and affects memory, language, and thought.
Scientists believe that for most people, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.
Alzheimer’s disease damages and kills brain cells. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease has many fewer cells and many fewer connections among surviving cells than does a healthy brain.
As more and more brain cells die, Alzheimer’s leads to significant brain shrinkage. When doctors examine Alzheimer’s brain tissue under the microscope, they see two types of abnormalities that are considered hallmarks of the disease:
- These clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid may damage and destroy brain cells in several ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication. Although the ultimate cause of brain-cell death in Alzheimer’s isn’t known, the collection of beta-amyloid on the outside of brain cells is a prime suspect.
- Brain cells depend on an internal support and transport system to carry nutrients and other essential materials throughout their long extensions. This system requires the normal structure and functioning of a protein called tau.
- Age:Most people who develop Alzheimer’s disease are 65 years of age or older.
- Family history:If you have an immediate family member who has developed the condition, you’re more likely to get it too.
- Certain genes have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
- Down syndrome: Many people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s disease. Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s tend to appear 10 to 20 years earlier in people with Down syndrome than they do for the general population.
- Sex: Women seem to be more likely than are men to develop Alzheimer’s disease, in part because they live longer.
- Past head trauma: People who’ve had a severe head trauma seem to have a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Lifestyle and heart health: Some evidence suggests that the same factors that put you at risk of heart disease also may increase the chance that you’ll develop Alzheimer’s.
Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean that you’ll develop Alzheimer’s disease. It simply raises your risk level.
ALZHEIMER’S AND GENETICS:
While there is no one single identifiable cause of Alzheimer’s, genetics may play a key role. One gene in particular is of interest to researchers.
Apolipoprotein E (APOE) is a gene that’s been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms in seniors.
Using this test early could indicate the likelihood of someone having or developing the disease. However, the test is controversial, and the results are not entirely reliable.
SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE:
Everyone has episodes of forgetfulness from time to time. But people with Alzheimer’s disease display certain ongoing behaviors and symptoms that worsen over time. These can include:
- Cognitive and functional abilities:a person’s ability to understand, think, remember and communicate will be affected. This could impact a person’s ability to make decisions, perform simple tasks, or follow a conversation. Sometimes people lose their way, or experience confusion and memory loss, initially for recent events and eventually for long-term events.
- Emotions and moods:a person may appear apathetic and lose interest in favourite hobbies. Some people become less expressive and withdrawn.
- Behaviour: a person may have reactions that seem out of character. Some common reactions include repeating the same action or words, hiding possessions, physical outbursts and restlessness.
- Physical abilities:the disease can affect a person’s coordination and mobility, to the point of affecting their ability to perform day-to-day tasks such as eating, bathing and getting dressed.
DIAGNOSING ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE:
There’s no specific test today that confirms you have Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed with complete accuracy only after death, when microscopic examination of the brain reveals the characteristic plaques and tangles.
However, your doctor will likely do several tests to determine your diagnosis. These can be mental, physical, neurological, and imaging tests.
MENTAL STATUS AND NEUROPSYCHOLOGICAL TESTING:
A brief mental status test to assess your memory and other thinking skills should be done. In addition, a more extensive assessment of your thinking and memory will be suggested. Longer forms of neuropsychological testing may provide additional details about your mental function compared with others’ of a similar age and education level.
PHYSICAL AND NEUROLOGICAL EXAM:
Your doctor will perform a physical exam, and is likely to check your overall neurological health by testing your:
- Muscle tone and strength
- Ability to get up from a chair and walk across the room
- Sense of sight and hearing
LAB TESTS: Blood tests may help your doctor rule out other potential causes of memory loss and confusion, such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies.
BRAIN IMAGING: Your doctor may also order brain-imaging studies. These studies, which will create pictures of your brain, can include:
MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING (MRI): MRIs can help pick up key markers, such as inflammation, bleeding, and structural issues.
COMPUTED TOMOGRAPHY (CT) SCAN: CT scans take X-ray images which can help your doctor look for abnormal characteristics in your brain.
POSITRON EMISSION TOMOGRAPHY (PET) SCAN: PET scan images can help your doctor detect plaque buildup. Plaque is a protein substance related to Alzheimer’s symptoms.
- Medication: There’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, medications and other treatments to help ease your symptoms and delay the progression of the disease for as long as possible.
- Cholinesterase inhibitors:These drugs work by boosting levels of a cell-to-cell communication by providing a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) that is depleted in the brain by Alzheimer’s disease.
Commonly prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors include donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne) and rivastigmine (Exelon).
- Memantine (Namenda):This drug works in another brain cell communication network and slows the progression of symptoms with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. It’s sometimes used in combination with a cholinesterase inhibitor.
Antidepressants, antianxiety medications, or antipsychotics to help treat symptoms related to Alzheimer’s. These symptoms include depression, restlessness, aggression, agitation, and hallucinations.
Other Alzheimer’s treatments:
In addition to medication, lifestyle changes may help you manage your condition. For example, your doctor might develop strategies to help you or your loved one:
- focus on tasks
- limit confusion
- avoid confrontation
- get enough rest every day
- stay calm
Some people believe that vitamin E can help prevent decline in mental abilities, but studies indicate that more research is needed.
CAN ALZHEIMER’S BE INHERITED?
Alzheimer’s typically affects people who are ages 65 years and older. However, it can occur in people as early as their 40s or 50s. This is called early onset Alzheimer’s. It is inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means one copy of the altered gene in each cell is sufficient to cause the disorder. In most cases, an affected person inherits the altered gene from one affected parent.
10 EARLY SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty Planning and Solving Problems
- Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks
- Confusion with time or place
- Vision Loss
- Withdrawal from work and social activities
- Misplacing Items Often
- Experiencing Personality and Mood Changes
- Decreased or poor judgment
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
Although many people have heard of Alzheimer’s disease, some aren’t sure exactly what it is. Here are some facts about this condition:
- Alzheimer’s is a chronic ongoing condition.
- Its symptoms come on gradually, and the effects on the brain are degenerative (they cause slow decline).
- There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but treatment can help slow the progression of the disease and may improve quality of life.
- Anyone can get Alzheimer’s disease, but certain people are at higher risk for it. This includes people over age 65 and those with a family history of the condition.
- Alzheimer’s and dementia are not the same thing. Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia.
- There’s no single expected outcome for people with Alzheimer’s. Some people live a long time with mild cognitive damage, while others experience a more rapid onset of symptoms and quicker disease progression.