Understanding Alzheimer's

An Alzheimer’s Overview

Understanding Alzheimer's | 04.27.15

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia, a family of conditions that cause memory and behavior problems which interfere with the activities of daily life. The symptoms tend to begin gradually and then get progressively worse with the passage of time. 

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, accounting for up to 80% of all people with the condition. As many as 35 million people worldwide suffer from dementia; this number is expected to more than triple by 2050.

As people grow older, they become more at risk for developing dementia, which can be caused by several different brain diseases or other medical issues.  However, it is by no means inevitable. Many individuals live long lives without any cognitive issues.  A healthy diet, along with both physical and mental exercise, may lower your risk.

Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s symptoms are often confused with the normal memory lapses that can come with aging. But there’s an important difference: age-related memory problems usually don’t interfere with the activities of daily life. The more serious symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia are harder to dismiss as mere forgetfulness. Here are some of the common symptoms:

Memory problems

Short-term memory problems are usually the first signs of memory loss connected with Alzheimer’s. A person with Alzheimer’s may forget the names of people, objects or places; they may not be able to remember social activities, appointments, or daily tasks; they may forget the location of familiar items; and they may rely on notes or calendars to remember daily tasks.

Long-term memories are generally the final victim of Alzheimer’s. A lifetime worth of memories will eventually fade, including the names of loved ones.

Poor communication and language skills

People with Alzheimer’s may find themselves tongue-tied as they search for the right words. Their speech may be jumbled or incoherent. Even without having any hearing problems, they may find it hard to understand what is being said to them during a conversation.

Impaired visual perception

Well-known locations may appear strange to a person with Alzheimer’s. Minor changes can confuse them and they may be unable to recognize familiar objects or faces.

Inability to focus and pay attention

It is common for people with Alzheimer’s to lose track of their surroundings. They may forget the date, time and place, get lost in the middle of conversations and seem to “space out.” While playing a favorite game, they may forget the rules; during a TV show, they may forget the plot. They may tell the same story or ask the same question repeatedly.

Problems with reasoning and judgment

People with Alzheimer’s may be reckless, impulsive and show poor judgment. That puts them at increased risk of accidents. They may speak or act inappropriately. Decision-making, following instructions or performing routine calculations becomes increasingly difficult and overwhelming.

 Psychiatric symptoms

As a brain disorder, Alzheimer’s can become a factor in a variety of mental health problems, including mood changes and frustration, depression, delusions, overstated or bizarre reactions to outside events, hallucinations, physical and verbal aggression or anger towards other people, or, in contrast, apathy or indifference.

Causes of Alzheimer’s

Although there can be several underlying causes—from reduced blood flow in the brain to vitamin deficiencies to infectious diseases—in most cases, Alzheimer’s is the result of neurodegenerative disease.  These conditions are just beginning to be understood, and most develop due to a build-up of abnormal proteins within the brain.

The result of this accumulation of abnormal proteins is neurodegeneration (loss of neurons), brain shrinkage, and impaired brain function.  This can occur over many years before any symptoms appear.

Do the symptoms ever improve?

No. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. Unfortunately, the symptoms will worsen and become more frequent as time passes. This progression is ultimately fatal as the disease kills more brain cells, leading to loss of cognitive and bodily functions.

As the disease progresses, people with Alzheimer’s require more and more daily assistance from their caregivers. During late stages, basic daily functions such as dressing or eating require assistance.  How rapidly the disease progresses varies with the individual.

Can Alzheimer’s be treated?

Research into finding effective treatments for Alzheimer’s is ongoing, but at this time, there is no cure. (Some types of dementia, however, can be treated; that makes it important to seek a professional diagnosis when faced with symptoms of memory loss.)

But the lack of a cure does not mean the lack of hope. Treating Alzheimer’s involves finding the resources to face the condition with lifestyle and attitude changes designed to help lessen the symptoms and face the future with a positive mind-set. With the right tools and a community of support, a life of joyful moments—taken one-at-a-time, day-by-day—is within reach.

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