What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder where the death of brain cells destroys memory and cognitive skills. Primarily a disease of seniors, Alzheimer’s symptoms generally first appear after the age 60. The symptoms start mild and get progressively worse over time. Eventually, these changes interfere with daily life to the point that the ability to perform the simplest tasks is affected.
The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the physician who first noticed changes in the brain tissue of a patient who died after suffering memory loss and other symptoms now associated with the condition. After examining the patient’s brain, Alzheimer discovered abnormal clumps and tangled fibers. These were the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles now known to be two of the contributing factors of the disease that carries Alzheimer’s name.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, there are medications and management strategies that can help optimize the lifestyle of both the patient and caregiver.
How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
There is no single test for Alzheimer’s Disease. During a diagnosis, your primary doctor or a neurologist will review your medical history, medication history and your symptoms and they may order tests to rule out other conditions that can cause dementia-like symptoms.
Your doctor or doctors may take the following steps in making a diagnosis:
- Do a physical examination to find any signs of other health conditions that could be causing or contributing to your symptoms, such as signs of past strokes, a heart condition, kidney disease or other medical conditions.
- Test neurological functions such as balance, senses and reflexes.
- Order laboratory tests to rule out medical conditions, such as thyroid problems or a vitamin B-12 deficiency.
- Arrange for brain imaging tests, such as CT and MRI scans
In addition to physical tests, your doctor will take steps to assess your cognitive skills, including memory, abstract thinking, problem-solving, language usage and related skills.
In some cases, your doctor may also ask your friends or family members questions about you and your behavior to ascertain whether any noticeable changes have occurred that you may be unaware of.
You should set up a consultation with your doctor at the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Getting an early diagnosis can be an important step in determining whether other factors are at work other than Alzheimer’s.
Even if there are no other causes, your doctor may have medications or programs available that can help minimize the effect of the disease on your everyday life for as long as possible. With an early diagnosis, you also may be able to participate in clinical trials of promising new treatments.
Common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s
Persistent and progressive memory loss
Misinterpreting spatial relationships
Problems speaking and writing
Difficulty in concentrating
Problems with abstract thinking
Impaired judgment and decision making
Distrust of others
Irritability and aggressiveness
Loss of inhibitions
Decreased fine motor skills
Changes in gait when walking
Numbness in the extremities
What causes 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.
Microscopic plaques and tangles occur in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Plaques are caused from the build-up of beta-amyloid proteins and are found between dying brain cells. Tangles are caused by a protein called tau and are found within brain cells.
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.
How is Alzheimer’s treated?
At this time, there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Brain cells do not regenerate once they die. However, by planning your response on how to live with Alzheimer’s, whether you are a patient or a caregiver, you can have a huge impact on the likelihood of a positive quality of life.
Although drug therapy does not impact the progression of the disease, it might help reduce some symptoms. Four medications have been approved in the United States to treat Alzheimer’s symptoms:
- Donepezil (Aricept®)
- Galantamine (Razadyne®)
- Rivastigmine (Exelon®)
- Memantine (Namenda®)
Donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine are used for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms. Memantine is used to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. All four drugs are in a class known as cholinesterase inhibitors, which help regulate the chemicals that transmit messages between brain cells. In certain cases, they can help maintain memory, speaking and other cognitive skills, as well as diminish some behavior problems.
Helping caregivers manage the behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s, such as insomnia, wandering, anger and depression, can be one of the most effective treatment strategies. Keep in mind, these medications do not work for all people and may only be effective for a limited time.
Caregivers face what can sometimes seem like insurmountable physical, emotional, and financial costs. The more they can learn about what Alzheimer’s entails, the sooner they can begin to develop the coping skills and the support network of family and friends needed, both to care for their loved one and to maintain their own well-being.