Alzheimer’s, also commonly known as Alzheimer’s disease, is a condition that destroys brain function. Alzheimer’s worsens as time goes on, making daily tasks increasingly difficult. After an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it is recommended that the patient live with someone capable of assisting with daily tasks.
Scientists and physicians are not yet sure exactly what causes Alzheimer’s. However, a combination of lifestyle, genetic, and environmental factors may increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Research is ongoing into the factors that are commonly linked to development of Alzheimer’s in the hopes that these links will assist in early detection and treatment.
Those with a family history of Alzheimer’s have an increased risk of developing the disease. A particular gene APOE ε4 has been linked to the disease. However, not all patients that develop Alzheimer’s have this gene, and not all who have the gene develop Alzheimer’s. Due to the connections between the gene and the disease, though, this is a key focus area for ongoing research.
Lifestyle and Environmental Factors
About 96 percent of Alzheimer’s patients are over the age of 60. Obesity, high blood pressure, and heart complications have been linked to development of Alzheimer’s, and the risk of developing the disease increases even more with age. Lack of intellectual stimulation has also been linked to Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s affects the brain in three main ways. Alzheimer’s causes amyloid plaques, which are protein “clumps” that block normal cellular communications. Nuerofibrillary tangles may cause interference with cellular functions, and can be used as a marker for Alzheimer’s. Connections between neurons in the brain may also be severed. All of these affect the way that chemical signals are sent and received in the brain.
Stages of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is classified into three categories as it progresses: mild, moderate, and severe. Mild Alzheimer’s mainly effects memory to one degree or another. Patients may become lost or have trouble remembering things like the season or the year. Personality changes may come with the memory loss, and it is at this stage that the disease is most commonly diagnosed.
Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease
One of the first areas of the brain that is affected by Alzheimer’s is the area responsible for learning new skills, so patients often have trouble retaining new information as the disease progresses. Confusion and memory loss will become more severe at this stage, and patients may begin to have trouble with recognition of places and faces. Fear, hallucinations, and paranoia may also manifest. Patients will begin to have trouble performing daily tasks such as getting dressed and cooking when Alzheimer’s disease is moderate.
Severe Alzheimer’s Disease
When Alzheimer’s disease is severe, many areas of the brain begin to shut down and shrink. Patients will cease to be capable of communication and motor skills by this time. All of the patient’s needs must be met by caregivers.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease
At this time, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis cannot be confirmed until after death. Only an autopsy will reveal the plaques and tangles that signify Alzheimer’s. However, tests can be performed on patients to rule out other possibilities for dementia, such as vitamin deficiencies.
If it is suspected that a patient may have some form of dementia, physicians will ask the patient questions about health and ability to complete daily activities. Tests will be done to examine memory and other cognitive functions. Blood tests and scan tests will be done to rule out underlying reasons for a loss of function, such as a stroke.
Treating Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is incurable at this time. However, lifestyle changes and certain medications may slow the progression of the disease and increase mental function. Lifestyle changes may help patients to target the underlying issues at the root of the disease, such as heart health, thereby increasing health and well being. Medications may help patients to retain memory and control behavioral issues.
F.D.A. approved Alzheimer’s medications currently include:
“Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet.” National Institute on Aging. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 13 Feb 2014. Web. 18 Feb 2014. <http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/alzheimers-disease-fact-sheet>.
“Alzheimer’s Disease.” PubMed Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 26 Sep 2011. Web. 18 Feb 2014. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001767/>.
“What is Alzheimer’s?.” Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s Association, n.d. Web. 18 Feb 2014. <http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp>.