Understanding Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer’s is a progressive and irreversible disease that results in the loss of memory and other important mental functions. It is the number one cause of dementia, a group of brain disorders defined by mental impairment severe enough to interfere with everyday tasks.
Alzheimer’s can affect anyone, though onset tends to be in the mid-sixties. Over five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. Most people don’t know that Alzheimer’s is also the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and claims more lives than breast and prostate cancer combined.
People can live with Alzheimer’s for a few years or a few decades. On average, people live with it for nine years. Treatment can help to improve symptoms and delay the progression of the disease. But Alzheimer’s has no cure. It is important to seek support as early as possible.
At first, Alzheimer’s can be difficult to distinguish from normal aging. You may feel forgetful, and have difficulty remembering things that happened recently, while easily recalling events that happened five, ten, or fifteen years in the past. But over time, memory loss increases.
You might notice that you’re having trouble remembering things or making sense of your thoughts. Or, you might not notice that anything is wrong, while family members, friends, and co-workers notice changes.
Other symptoms can include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling confused or easily frustrated, especially later in the day
- Mood swings, including anger, irritability, anxiety, or depression
- Having a hard time completing everyday tasks and activities, such as managing finances, planning and cooking meals, driving, dressing, bathing, or playing sports or games
- Having difficulty understanding your physical environment
- Becoming disoriented easily
- Getting lost
- Having difficulty communicating
- Physical problems, such as poor coordination or an odd gait
- Social withdrawal
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Distrust in others
- Loss of inhibitions
Some skills are not lost until very late in the progression of the disease. These may include reading, dancing and singing, enjoying or playing music. Skills that are acquired early in life tend to be among those that last the longest during the progression of the disease.
Causes & Risk Factors
The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, though scientists believe that over time, a combination of lifestyle, genetic, and environmental factors contribute to the development of the disease.
There is no single lifestyle factor that can help you to avoid developing Alzheimer’s disease. However, evidence suggests that the risk factors for heart disease can also increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. These include:
- Physical inactivity
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- High cholesterol
- Poorly managed diabetes
- Poor diet
Having a first-degree relative, such as a parent or sibling, who has Alzheimer’s can increase your risk slightly. In under 5% of cases, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by specific genetic mutations that guarantee a person will get the disease. Though These mechanisms are poorly understood.
- Age. Age is the single greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Though the disease is not a normal part of the aging process, your risk increases significantly after the age of 65. Nearly half of all those over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. People who have genetic mutations that guarantee Alzheimer’s disease may start developing symptoms as early as in their 30s.
- Sex. Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than men. However, this is in part because women are more likely to live longer than men.
- Cognitive impairments. People who have mild cognitive impairments (MCIs) have more memory loss or symptoms of cognitive decline than what is considered normal for their age, though their symptoms are not severe enough to constitute dementia. People with MCIs have an increased risk of developing dementia later on in life.
- Head trauma. Severe head trauma or repeated trauma to the head may increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The Role of Lifelong Learning and Social Engagement
Studies have indicated that having a lifelong history of social and mental stimulation can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Potential factors include:
- Higher levels of formal education
- Frequent social interaction
- Mentally challenging hobbies, such as reading, playing an instrument, or doing puzzles
- Having a stimulating job
Scientists do not yet understand this link. One theory suggests that the more you use your brain, the more cell-to-cell links you develop. These links are thought to protect your brain from the impact of Alzheimer’s, though this is yet unproven.
Medication can sometimes help to reduce the impact of memory-related symptoms and other changes in cognitive functioning related to Alzheimer’s disease. Two types of drugs may be prescribed. They include:
- Cholinesterase inhibitors. Alzheimer’s can deplete brain chemicals that promotes communication between cells. These drugs help to increase levels. They can help to keep symptoms from worsening, though few people experience improvements in their symptoms.
Exercise is important for everyone, including those who have Alzheimer’s. Walking only 30 minutes a day can help to improve mood and ensure a healthy heart and strong joints and muscles. It can also improve the quality of sleep and promote regular bowel movements. People with Alzheimer’s who have difficulty walking may be able to use a stationary bike or do exercises seated on a chair.
A healthy diet is important for people with Alzheimer’s, who may easily forget to eat or lose interest in healthy foods and food preparation. Staying hydrated is also important. If you are preparing food for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you can try offering the following:
- Calorie-rich shakes and smoothies
Use protein powder to supplement milkshakes, or blend ingredients at home using a food processor.
- Water, juice, and other drinks
People with Alzheimer’s should be drinking at least three full glasses of liquid per day. Caffeine beverages should be avoided, as they can interfere with sleep and increase the need to urinate.
Treatment and Care Facilities
When you’re choosing a good care facility for your family member, it’s important to figure out what type they should be in. For light cases, it’s possible that retirement or assisted living residences are more than sufficient for your family member with alzheimer's. If things are more severe, maybe care facilities have specific memory units.
Severe cases of alzheimer's benefit greatly from being located at a facility that has a memory specific unit. Additionally if there’s the fear that things will worsen, choosing one with a memory until already at the location can prevent having to change care facilities.
You want to choose a facility that has the right degree of supervision for your relative. If they have begun to wander, then something with a higher degree of separation is necessary. Your family members social level is also important. Some prefer more isolation and if that’s the case there are memory care cottages available that will let them live in quieter isolation. If socialization is there thing, then there are neighborhood style communities that can be chosen.
No information on this website should be used to start the use of dietary supplements and vitamins, natural and herbal products, homeopathic medicine and other mentioned products prior to a consultation with a physician or certified healthcare provider.