Alzheimer’s Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

The sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. is Alzheimer’s and is a progressive disease that affects cognition and memory. It may impact more people than we realize as some believe cases have gone undiagnosed and underreported. Alzheimer’s disease negatively affects cognitive ability, and – in its advanced stages – it can leave people unable to live independently or to recognize family members or close friends.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s is a progressive type of dementia. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. All cases of Alzheimer’s disease are in fact dementia, but not every case of dementia is Alzheimer’s. Dementia is a broad term used to describe various conditions that impact thinking, memory or cognitive capacity, which affect a person’s everyday life. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia diagnoses.

Some people have two types of dementia, which is called mixed dementia. This could indicate that they have Alzheimer’s in combination with another form of dementia, like vascular dementia.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are treatments that can slow the progression and improve the quality of life for those who live with it.

The Facts on Alzheimer’s

Although many people have heard of this life-changing disorder, there is a great deal of incorrect information about it. The following are some helpful facts to further explain what Alzheimer’s entails:

  • Alzheimer’s can affect anyone, but individuals who are 65 and older and have a family history of the disease are at a higher risk
  • There is no definitive outcome of Alzheimer’s; some live many years with the condition, while others experience a rapid progression of the condition
  • Alzheimer’s is a chronic, ongoing condition
  • There are more than five million Americans who are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

The following are the types of symptoms someone who has Alzheimer’s could experience. As this is a progressive disease, these symptoms will likely begin mild and become severe over time with life-impacting symptoms. People who have Alzheimer’s disease may experience:

  • Trouble with familiar or easy tasks, like operating a stove or microwave
  • Disorientation, not understanding where they are or getting their days and nights confused
  • Dramatic changes in personality or mood, sometimes even transforming a kind, patient person into a demanding or judgmental one
  • Poor judgment and inability to recognize a dangerous situation
  • The inability to problem solve
  • Difficulty grooming or bathing themselves
  • Withdrawal from family members and friends
  • Memory struggles, forgetting appointments, failing to recognize family members and friends, or forgetting if they’ve taken their medication
  • Frequent loss or misplacement of items like money, keys, credit cards, possessions, etc.

Stages and Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease

There are several stages to the progression of Alzheimer’s:

Stage 1: often entails no symptoms at all. This stage is usually found early due to a family history.

Stage 2: at this stage the mildest symptoms begin to appear, usually primarily mild forgetfulness.

Stage 3: mental impairments and mild physical issues start to appear. This could include even more cognitive diminishes, such as memory loss. Usually those closest to the individual might start to notice something is amiss, but generally unnoticeable by those who do not know the person.

Stage 4: this stage is usually identified while the condition is still considered mild. They often start having problems with daily tasks, and memory loss increases.

Stage 5: moderate to severe symptoms are more apparent in this stage, often promoting concern by caregivers, friends or family members.

Stage 6: at this stage, people living with Alzheimer’s disease begin to need assistance with basic household and hygienic tasks, such as dressing and eating.

Stage 7: this stage of Alzheimer’s can include the loss of facial expression or speech and symptoms become more severe in nature.

Causes and Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease can impact anyone, although scientists have been unable to prove specific causes. However, there are signs that point to the development of the degenerative condition that seem to indicate a greater chance of having the disease. They include:

  • Age: the risk of developing dementia is greatest in people 65 years of age or older but can still affect those under 65. For example, Huntington’s disease frequently develops in people in their 30s to 40s
  • Family History: a person with a parent or sibling who has dementia has an elevated risk of developing it
  • Traumatic brain injury: a person who experiences a traumatic brain injury, especially if it was severe, has a bigger risk of developing dementia
  • Poor overall health: a person who has risk factors for heart disease (such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol), smokes, drinks excessively or has unmanaged Type 2 diabetes is at increased risk
  • Lack of social engagement: several studies show that it’s important to maintain an active, healthy social life. Those who do live actively and engaged have a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia than those who became withdrawn or depressed.

Diagnosis and Medical Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease

Identifying and diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease cannot be accomplished with just one test. Physicians will complete several tests to diagnose the condition. These include:

Mental Evaluation: most healthcare providers will begin with simple mental and orientation tests to assess for memory loss. This can include asking the patient questions like:

  • Who is the president?
  • What day is it?
  • What season is it?
  • Can you recall a short list of words?

Physical Exam: checking a patient’s blood pressure, heart rate and temperature are all part of the physical exam. Blood and urine samples might also be checked by a lab to help rule out any underlying concerns.

Neurological Exam: ruling out conditions like infections or stroke is included in the neurological exam. A patient’s speech, muscle tone and reflexes are also evaluated during this assessment.

Imaging Tests: imaging or brain scans help give the doctor a more accurate view of what is going on in their patient’s brain. These can include:

  • Computed Tomography Exam (CT): this is an X-ray image of the brain, allowing the doctor to check for abnormalities in the brain
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): helps doctors see structural, bleeding and inflammation issues within the brain
  • Position Emission Tomography (PET): this test allows physicians to detect a buildup of plaque, which is related to the development of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s Treatment Options

There are treatments and medications that can delay the progression of the condition and ease some of the symptoms even though there is not a cure currently for Alzheimer’s. The following are some of the most utilized treatments:

Medications: when Alzheimer’s is in the early to moderate stages, physician often prescribe specific medications to help lessen the severity of symptoms. These include Rivastigmine or Exelon, Donepezil or Aricept. These prescription medicines work by increasing the levels of acetylcholine in the brain, which has proven to improve memory. With moderate Alzheimer’s, doctors will recommend Donepezil, Aricept, Memantine or Namenda. Memantine blocks the way excess glutamate effects the body and is released in greater amounts in those living with Alzheimer’s. Some physicians will also recommend antianxiety medications, antidepressants or antipsychotics to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Coping Strategies: in addition to medication, doctors also recommend coping strategies for those living with the disease. They can include helping improve focus on tasks, limiting confusion, avoiding confrontation and getting the appropriate amount of rest.

Supplements: there is limited data indicating Vitamin E can help with deteriorating mental abilities. If this route is preferred, one should always check with their doctor about possible interactions with other medications.

Alzheimer’s Care

If your family member or friend is suffering from this challenging, life-altering disease, the most important thing you can do is remain patient and learn what resources are available to help them live a high-quality life with the disease. In the middle or advanced stages, this may include finding a safe residential community, like Sunscape Boca Raton Senior Living Care. We are committed to working with residents to improve their cognitive ability, promoting a better quality of life and as much independence as possible. We work tirelessly to determine what support and treatments residents need.

If you’d like to learn more about memory care communities for people with Alzheimer’s, request a free copy of Sunscape Boca Raton Senior Living Guide for Finding the Right Memory Care Community.

If you have questions about our housing, amenities or programs, we’re happy to answer your questions. Call us at 561-468-3955.