Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive form of dementia. Dementia is a broader term for conditions caused by brain injuries or diseases that negatively affect memory, thinking, and behavior. These changes interfere with daily living.
Approximately 5.8 million people in the United States age 65 and older live with Alzheimer’s disease. Of those, 80% are 75 years old and older. Out of the approximately 50 million people worldwide with dementia, between 60% and 70% are estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease lead to growing trouble with:
- Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic ongoing condition.
- Its symptoms come on gradually and the effects on the brain are degenerative, meaning 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 aren’t 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.
Changes in personality and behavior
Brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease can affect moods and behaviors. Problems may include the following:
- Social withdrawal
- Mood swings
- Distrust in others
- Irritability and aggressiveness
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Loss of inhibitions
- Delusions, such as believing something has been stolen
When to see a doctor
A number of conditions, including treatable conditions, can result in memory loss or other dementia symptoms. If you are concerned about your memory or other thinking skills, talk to your doctor for a thorough assessment and diagnosis.
If you are concerned about thinking skills you observe in a family member or friend, talk about your concerns and ask about going together to a doctor’s appointment.
The exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease
Experts haven’t determined a single cause of Alzheimer’s disease but they have identified certain risk factors, including:
- Age : Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is not a part of normal aging, but as you grow older the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease increases.
- Family history: Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s is somewhat higher if a first-degree relative — your parent or sibling — has the disease. Most genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer’s among families remain largely unexplained, and the genetic factors are likely complex.
One better understood genetic factor is a form of the apolipoprotein E gene (APOE). A variation of the gene, APOE e4, increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Approximately 25% to 30% of the population carries an APOE e4 allele, but not everyone with this variation of the gene develops the disease.
Scientists have identified rare changes (mutations) in three genes that virtually guarantee a person who inherits one of them will develop Alzheimer’s. But these mutations account for less than 1% of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Genetics. Certain genes have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
- Poor sleep patterns: Research has shown that poor sleep patterns, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
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’s no one 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 older adults.
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:
- memory loss affecting daily activities, such as an ability to keep appointments
- trouble with speech or writing
- trouble with familiar tasks, such as using a microwave
- difficulties with problem-solving
- mood and personality changes
- becoming disoriented about times or places
- decreased judgment
- decreased personal hygiene
- withdrawal from friends, family, and community
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means the symptoms will gradually worsen over time. Alzheimer’s is broken down into seven stages:
This stage of dementia is often overlooked because the onset is gradual. Common symptoms include:
- Losing track of time
- Becoming lost in familiar places
As dementia progresses to the middle stage, the signs and symptoms become clearer and more restricting. They are:
- Becoming forgetful of recent events and people’s names
- Getting lost at home
- Increased difficulty in communication
- Needing help with personal care
- Behavioural changes, including wandering and repeated questioning
This stage is one of near total dependence and inactivity. Memory disturbances are serious and the physical signs and symptoms become more obvious. These include:
- Become unaware of time and place
- Difficulty in recognizing relatives and friends
- Increased need to assisted self-care
- Difficulty in walking
- Behavioural changes that may escalate and include aggression
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease
The only definitive way to diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s disease is to examine their brain tissue after death. But your doctor can use other examinations and tests to assess your mental abilities, diagnose dementia, and rule out other conditions.
They’ll likely start by taking a medical history. They may ask about your:
- family medical history
- other current or past health conditions
- current or past medications
- diet, alcohol intake, or other lifestyle habits
From there, your doctor will likely do several tests to help determine if you have Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s Treatment, Care and Prevention
There is no treatment currently available to cure dementia or to alter its progressive course. However, numerous new treatments are being investigated in various stages of clinical trials.
However, there are a few things one can do to support and improve the lives of individuals with dementia. These include:
- Early diagnosis in order to early and optimal management
- Optimizing physical health, cognition, well-being and activity
- Identifying and treating accompanying physical illness
- Detecting and treating challenging behavioural and psychological symptoms
Although age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia, it is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. Further, dementia does not exclusively affect older people – young onset dementia – which is the onset of symptoms before the age of 65 years – accounts for up to 9 per cent of cases. According to studies, dementia can be prevented by following certain guidelines. These are:
- Regular Exercise
- Not Smoking
- Avoiding harmful use of alcohol
- Controlling weight
- Eating a healthy diet
- Getting good sleep
- Maintaining healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels
Many conditions are progressive, which means that the signs of dementia start out slowly and gradually get worse. It is an important part of elderly care for caregivers to try and observe such changes in their senior loved one.
If you or someone you know is experiencing memory difficulties or other changes in behaviour or thinking skills, don’t ignore them; consult a doctor immediately to determine the cause.