Alzheimer’s Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments
Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
By 2050, an estimated 13 million Americans will be impacted by Alzheimer’s – not to mention millions more family members affected by their loved one’s diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that deteriorates normal cognitive function, including memory, logic and behavior. Over time, this disease worsens and interferes with even the simplest daily tasks. In late stages, patients may no longer recognize their spouse, children or close friends.
Yet, there’s hope. Certain treatments and care options can slow down the effects of Alzheimer’s and enhance quality of life. Let’s go over everything you need to know about Alzheimer’s, including the best care options available today.
- What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
- Key Facts About Alzheimer’s
- Symptoms & Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Causes & Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Alzheimer’s Treatment Options
- Alzheimer’s Care For Your Loved One
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80% of cases. It’s characterized by the loss of cognitive function, which includes tasks such as remembering, thinking, reasoning and interacting with others.
Alzheimer’s disease breaks down and blocks brain cells, negatively impacting the body’s communication networks. This occurs due to plaque build-up in the brain (called amyloid plaques) and tangled nerve cells (called neurofibrillary tangles).
While there’s currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, treatment and care options can help slow down symptoms and improve quality of life for patients.
Key Facts About Alzheimer’s
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation about Alzheimer’s today. To clarify what Alzheimer’s disease is (and isn’t), here are some key facts to keep in mind:
- About 6.5 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Alzheimer’s is most common in individuals who are 65+ years old, though it can affect people at any age.
- Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. It’s a disease that deteriorates brain cells.
- Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time.
- Alzheimer’s impacts every individual differently. Some may live only two to three years after a diagnosis, while others may survive for 15+ years.
- Some patients have more than one type of dementia, called mixed dementia. For example, an individual could have Alzheimer’s as well as vascular dementia.
- Patients can slow down the development of Alzheimer’s by adopting healthy habits, staying engaged and taking certain medications.
Symptoms & Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
Many family members believe forgetfulness is the main sign of Alzheimer’s, but symptoms are often more complex.
Because Alzheimer’s disease breaks down memory and cognitive abilities, individuals often first experience confusion, disorientation and trouble with daily activities. Over time, symptoms become more advanced, interfering with daily life and impacting overall health. Here’s what to expect at every stage of Alzheimer’s.
In the early stages, individuals may experience heightened forgetfulness and confusion but are otherwise able to carry out daily activities. Symptoms include:
- Confusion in familiar places (e.g. lost on the way home)
- Trouble with tasks that were once easy (e.g. cooking or doing a crossword)
- Trouble remembering names of people, places or items
- Trouble remembering where they left items
- Trouble planning or organizing
- Trouble finding the right word
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
Over time, impaired cognitive skills can lead to regular interference with daily life, resulting in the need for supervision and care. At this stage, common symptoms include:
- Trouble with daily tasks (e.g. dressing, driving, reading)
- Trouble remembering personal life events
- Asking questions over and over
- Disorientation about current time and place
- Confused speech
- Poor judgment
- Changes in mood, including depression, agitation, frustration or aggression
- Personality changes, including delusions or repetitive behaviors
- Withdrawing from social situations
- Trouble with bladder control
- Changes in sleeping patterns
In the final stage of Alzheimer’s, individuals require round-the-clock guidance and may no longer respond to their environment. The disease often progresses much quicker at this stage and may cause symptoms such as:
- Inability to recognize family members
- Inability to perform daily tasks (e.g. eating, dressing, bathing)
- No longer able to speak or communicate
- Impaired physical abilities
- Total loss of bladder control
- Difficulty swallowing
- High risk of infections
Causes & Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s Disease
Though anyone can develop Alzheimer’s disease, certain individuals may be at higher risk. Factors that may increase the chances of developing Alzheimer’s include:
- Age: Alzheimer’s is most common in individuals over the age of 65, though it can develop earlier.
- Family History: Having a relative (such as a parent or sibling) with dementia can increase the chances of developing it yourself.
- Head Trauma: Those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury may be at greater risk for Alzheimer’s.
- Poor Physical Health: Having heart disease or diabetes may increase your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Lack of Social Engagement: Individuals who are isolated and withdrawn from social circles may be at a higher risk.
- Gender: Women have a greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s compared to men.
- Race and Ethnicity: African Americans and Latinos are two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s compared to non-Hispanic whites. Scientists theorize this is due to higher rates of heart disease in these populations.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease
If you notice the signs of dementia in a loved one, it’s important to schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible. The sooner Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, the sooner individuals can receive treatment to slow down the symptoms.
At the appointment, your loved one’s doctor will likely perform a variety of diagnostic tests. These tests may include:
- Mental Evaluation: Simple mental and orientation tests.
- Physical Exam: Check for blood pressure and heart rate, and take blood and urine samples.
- Neurological Exam: Evaluate speech, muscle tone and reflexes to rule out other conditions.
- Imaging Tests: CT, MRI and PET scans check for abnormalities, inflammation and plaque build-up in the brain.
Alzheimer’s Treatment Options
Though there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, individuals can receive a robust care plan to slow down symptoms and improve quality of life. Here are some common treatments for Alzheimer’s patients:
Certain medications can reduce the severity of Alzheimer’s symptoms. Aducanumab (Aduhelm™), for example, is a cutting-edge treatment that targets amyloid build-up, one of the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s. This treatment aims to reduce cognitive decline in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
In mid- and late-stage Alzheimer’s, doctors may also prescribe medications to help support communication and cognitive processing, including cholinesterase inhibitors, glutamate modulators and more. These medications slow down symptoms, but can’t stop them completely.
Finally, some doctors may also recommend anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants and vitamin supplements (such as Vitamin E) as part of a personalized care plan.
In addition to medications, families can boost quality of life by keeping their loved ones engaged and healthy. Regular social interaction, calming therapies (such as music, art and pets), and intellectual stimulation can all play a role in slowing cognitive decline.
Alzheimer’s Care For Your Loved One
Alzheimer’s can be life-altering for families. If your loved one has been diagnosed with this disease, it’s important to find the best possible care option for his or her individual needs.
For those in the mid or late stages of Alzheimer’s, a memory care community like Sunscape Boca Raton can provide the engaging, round-the-clock stimulation and services that your loved one needs. Our aim is to maximize cognitive ability, promote quality of life and support independence according to every individual’s abilities and interests.
To learn more about memory care communities, request a free copy of Sunscape Boca Raton’s memory care resource guide. And don’t hesitate to contact us about our memory care neighborhood by calling us at (561) 468-3955 or filling out our online form.