Alzheimer’s Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder with a higher occurrence rate in adults over the age of 65. Because the disease is progressive, Alzheimer’s symptoms worsen over the years that follow the diagnosis.
Most people associate Alzheimer’s disease with memory impairments, but in the early stages, memory impairments are usually mild. Signs of Alzheimer’s disease grow more apparent during the middle stages when the individual forgets names, significant events and familiar places. Each person with Alzheimer’s demonstrates different symptoms, with some patients not progressing through the disease’s stages for several years. Connecting a person with the right type of Alzheimer’s care makes a significant difference in their prognosis.
According to The Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 5 million Americans live with the disease. Most frequently, Alzheimer’s symptoms don’t appear until after the age of 60. Every five years after the age of 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease doubles. Although aging is an associated risk factor with Alzheimer’s disease, the disorder can affect younger adults, too. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 receive a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s every year.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia—an umbrella term that encompasses various disorders that affect a person’s memory. The disease targets areas of the brain that control memory, language and critical thinking.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease remains unknown. However, the problem relates to proteins in the brain building up and causing the neurons to stop working properly. The loss of neurons typically starts in the region of the brain that controls memory. However, years of neuron damage may occur before the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease start to appear. By the time the patient enters the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, neuron damage has happened in other brain areas, and the brain has decreased significantly in size.
Researchers have found that a person’s current health status could affect Alzheimer’s risk. For example, those with high blood pressure and high cholesterol may have an increased chance of developing the disease.
Scientists believe plaques and tangles are the keys to understanding the root of Alzheimer’s disease. Plaque builds up between nerve cells in the brain, while tangles are twisted proteins lodged inside the neurons. These substances have a toxic effect on nerve cells and trigger the stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease patients don’t always develop severe impairments following a diagnosis. Stages for the disease can last for years. On average, a person will live eight years after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but some patients have survived up to 20 years. Like all forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease does not currently have a cure. However, medications and therapies have improved the overall quality of life.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s symptoms start mild before becoming progressively more serious. Early-stage Alzheimer’s disease patients usually only demonstrate slight memory issues. The symptoms could include forgetting names and misplacing objects frequently. During the earliest stages, family members may not notice any signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Most physicians don’t diagnose Alzheimer’s disease until moderate cognitive decline occurs. Symptoms could include increased bouts of forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, getting lost in familiar places, struggling to find the right vocabulary and experiencing mood changes. The person may become withdrawn from friends and family. He or she could also become aggressive or sad due to frequent bouts of confusion.
Memory loss can occur as an ordinary sign of aging, and it doesn’t always indicate Alzheimer’s disease. The main difference between occasional forgetfulness and Alzheimer’s is the latter interrupts daily living activities: There will be noticeable difficulty managing finances, traveling to places and communicating with those around them. Although some independence can remain during early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, memory care services are eventually needed.
Stages and Progression
The stages of Alzheimer’s disease typically range from three to seven. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, three main phases categorize the disease: mild, moderate and severe.
Mild: During the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, most patients continue to live independently. In some cases, a diagnosis doesn’t occur for those with mild Alzheimer’s disease. At this stage, symptoms include difficulty remembering names and events, personality changes, problems completing critical thinking tasks, disorganization, and misplacing belongings. During the early stage of the disease, symptoms can last between two and seven years.
Moderate: During the mid-stage of the disease is when most adults receive their diagnosis of the disorder. Middle-stage Alzheimer’s can last for many years, and it’s usually the longest stage. Symptoms may last for four to eight years. Moderate Alzheimer’s patients have increased bouts of poor judgment and experience more significant amounts of memory loss. Family members and friends often notice substantial changes in a person’s personality. The patient may grow paranoid and mistrustful of loved ones. Memory care services are often needed at this stage when daily living activities become difficult to manage. Memory care services help the patient with dressing, bathing, meal preparation and medication management.
Severe: Severe Alzheimer’s symptoms last an average of one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half years. Communication becomes very hard at this point, and the patient may only say a few words or phrases. He or she could grow confused over where they are and even forget close family members. Mobility issues are serious at this point, and the person may not be able to walk or hold his or her head up independently. Bowel functions become uncontrolled, and self-feeding may no longer be possible. Daily assistance for all personal care at this stage is typical.
Causes and Risk Factors
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet known. Researchers believe a combination of genetic and health factors determines Alzheimer’s risk. Age is one of the largest risk factors, with many Alzheimer’s cases occurring in adults over 65. By the time a person reaches the age of 85, he or she has a one-in-three chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Genetics is also a consideration for a person’s Alzheimer’s risk. The National Institute of Aging states that certain APOE gene forms have strong ties to the disease. Significantly, early-onset Alzheimer’s is most commonly linked to genetics and more likely to occur in those with a family history of the disease.
Vascular conditions have also occurred frequently in connection with Alzheimer’s disease patients. The disorder is seen more often in patients with other medical issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. Obesity and diabetes also increase the risk of dementia.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Medical professionals don’t rely on one type of test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, a series of tests ordered will measure cognitive abilities. Tests given by a specialist assess the person’s memory and critical thinking skills. Neurological tests will evaluate reflexes, coordination and balance. Also, lab tests determine if any underlying medical condition, such as a vitamin deficiency, could be causing the memory issue. Brain imaging scans, like an MRI or CT scan, look for any abnormalities that could cause the cognitive decline. Imaging scans rule out tumors and strokes in the patient. PET scans check for any protein deposits in the brain—a significant sign in Alzheimer’s patients.
The goal of Alzheimer’s treatment isn’t to cure the disease. Treatment options improve the quality of life and slow the progression of the symptoms. Medications such as Cholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine help preserve the brain’s communication system to slow down the progression from moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Drugs prescribed by a doctor can control the underlying symptoms of dementia. For instance, sleep aids and anti-depressants could assist an Alzheimer’s patient. Therapy appointments are commonplace for Alzheimer’s patients. In particular, occupational therapy is useful for ensuring a safe environment is available to the patient. All housing should go through a re-design to prevent any accessibility problems from occurring.
Alzheimer’s Disease Care Options
Memory care services are vital for the care of anyone with Alzheimer’s disease. With trained professionals’ assistance, family members with the disease are kept safe while given access to the right level of assistance. The severity of symptoms, as well as budget, usually determines the best type of Alzheimer’s care for the individual. The following are a few options to consider:
In-Home Alzheimer’s Care: For those with mild symptoms, a home health aide helps with transportation and daily living activities such as meal preparation, grooming and dressing.
Assisted Living: An assisted living community is ideal for those with mild to moderate cognitive impairments. Family members should consider a community with a dedicated memory care program. These programs provide 24/7 health monitoring, security, activity schedules, meal preparation and more.
Nursing Home: Severe Alzheimer’s disease usually requires full-time medical care. For late-stage cases, a nursing home offers round-the-clock access to healthcare professionals.
Memory Care at The Heritage of Brookstone
Heritage is here to provide support to those with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as their family members. With communities located in the beautiful Atlanta Georgia area, Heritage provides a signature memory care program, rooted in our Valeo wellness philosophy that has a foundation in science and whole person wellness.
Contact us today to learn more about our many services and amenities for Alzheimer’s residents, or start with a free copy of our Guide to Finding the Right Memory Care Community.