Losing track of the car keys. Forgetting how to prepare a meal. Struggling with words to communicate. Are these lapses in memory simply part of regular aging or is something more serious going on? These forgetful moments may stem from Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is a type of brain disease that gets worse over time. Dementia is not a disease itself but a name for a grouping of progressive brain syndromes that reduce thinking, memory, behavior and emotion. Alzheimer’s disease is the most widespread form of dementia, accounting for an estimated 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases.
To support dementia awareness and research and help ease the stigma that surrounds cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s Disease International designates September as World Alzheimer’s Month and September 21 as World Alzheimer’s Day.
What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological condition that damages nerve cells in the brain called neurons. The brain is comprised of 100 billion neurons. With Alzheimer’s, many of the affected neurons stop working or lose connections with other brain cells and eventually die.
Prime suspects that damage the brain cells include abnormal protein deposits that form beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain. Beta-amyloid plaques build up between brain nerve cells and tau tangles are twisted fibers that accumulate within brain cells. Beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles are considered hallmark indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.
Autopsy studies show that most people as they age experience a buildup of some plaques and tangles, but people with Alzheimer’s disease develop far more of these protein deposits and in a pattern that first affects memory.
Quick Facts About Alzheimer’s
- More than 6 million Americans of all ages are currently living with Alzheimer’s and by 2050 this number is projected to increase to nearly 13 million.
- There are many forms of dementia and some of the most common are Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal, Lewy body and vascular.
- Early onset dementia can affect individuals as young as mid-30s, but many individuals with dementia are seniors.
- Nearly two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women.
- Alzheimer’s disease progression is unsure—on average, people age 65 or above live four to eight years after diagnosis. But some older Alzheimer’s patients live as long as 20 years post-diagnosis.
- The Alzheimer’s Association in America finds that a third of U.S. seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
- Alzheimer’s Disease International reports that every three seconds another person around the world develops dementia.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
The complex brain changes involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease seem to indicate that toxic damage to the brain begins a decade or so before memory or cognitive symptoms appear. When initial Alzheimer’s symptoms do appear, many people are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. As the Alzheimer’s progresses, the following are common symptoms.
- Loss of memory that interferes with daily life
- Disorientation to time and place
- Challenges with problem solving or planning
- Struggling for the right words or understanding other people’s words
- Misplacing things and unable to retrace steps
- Difficulty completing routine tasks
- Trouble with visual images and spatial relationships
- Changes in mood, personality or behavior
- Diminished decision-making or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work and social activities
In a mild stage of Alzheimer’s, an individual may wander and get lost or repeat questions or phrases. Apathy or depression is also often an early symptom. As Alzheimer’s increases in severity, the person may experience problems with recognizing family and friends and eventually have difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
Causes and Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s
Medical researchers are finding there is no single one cause of Alzheimer’s. Several factors including age, genetics, lifestyle and environment play a role in an increased risk for developing the cognitive disease. While we cannot change the risk factors of age, family history and genetic makeup, we can influence other risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
Age—While older people are more likely to receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, age is not a direct cause of Alzheimer’s.
Family history—Those who have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the brain disease.
Genetics—Risk genes (genes that elevate the risk of developing a disease) and deterministic genes (genes that cause a disease) are both found in Alzheimer’s. Research continues to help affect genetic components that increase the risk for Alzheimer’s.
Scientists continue to discover clues about other dementia risks factors that can influence lifestyle and health choices. Two of the strongest correlations between the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s are head injury and compromised heart health. It is important to wear your seatbelt and helmet to protect your brain and it is also vital to work with your think doctor to monitor your heart’s condition as you age.
Data also shows that if a person becomes impaired in any of the five senses—eyesight, hearing, taste, touch and smell—this can accelerate cognitive impairment. For example, hearing loss has long been tied to cognitive deficits and a reason for seniors to be fitted with hearing aids earlier in life.
Can Alzheimer’s Be Prevented?
Researchers from around the world are exploring ways to prevent Alzheimer’s. Since people cannot change genes, the focus is on making lifestyle changes to further decrease the risk for the brain disease. Pursuing better overall health to prevent Alzheimer’s includes eating a healthy diet, increasing exercise and being mentally active and socially connected. Avoiding tobacco use and excess alcohol is also recommended as well as controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s
Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s yet, there are medications to help slow dementia progression and help improve cognitive symptoms. Consult with your think healthcare provider to learn more about which Alzheimer’s medications can reduce dementia decline or boost memory and stabilize daily functioning.
Alzheimer’s and other dementias with memory loss that disrupts daily living are not part of the normal aging process. If you or a loved one are experiencing any signs of cognitive impairment, talk to your think physician. Early detection and intervention methods matter.
LEARN MORE ABOUT ALZHEIMER’S AND OTHER DEMENTIAS BY SPEAKING WITH YOUR THINK PHYSICIAN.
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