What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain condition that impacts a person’s ability to think, remember and perform day-to-day tasks.

It is the most common form of dementia — accounting for 60-80 percent of all dementia cases. More than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Most of these people are over 65.

Lewy Body Dementia (LBD) Parkinson's Disease

Types of Alzheimer’s disease

Early onset Alzheimer’s disease

People who develop the condition before 60 years old have early onset Alzheimer’s disease. This form of Alzheimer’s disease tends to get worse very quickly and runs in families.

Late onset Alzheimer’s disease

Late onset Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of Alzheimer’s disease and develops in people over 65 years old.

Causes of Alzheimer’s disease

Although the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease dementia is unknown, research links the condition to nerve damage in the brain.

Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease

There are a variety of factors that increase your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease including:

  • Age — although Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging, most patients with Alzheimer’s disease are over 65 years old.
  • Gender — females are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Family history — people with a family history (first-degree relative such as a sibling or parent) of Alzheimer’s are at higher risk of developing the condition as well.
  • Medical conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels — people who suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or stroke are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Previous head trauma — research has linked previous head trauma with Alzheimer’s disease; if you have had a previous head injury, you are more likely to develop the condition.

Signs or symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease where symptoms gradually develop over time. There are three stages of the disease — mild, moderate and severe. The most common signs or symptoms of mild Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Loss of memory that is impacting simple day-to-day activities
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Confusion relating to time or location
  • Trouble speaking or finding the right words
  • Irritability or mood changes
  • Withdrawing from activities you once enjoyed
  • Decreased ability to make sound decisions

As the disease progresses, signs or symptoms intensify and can include:

  • Wandering aimlessly
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Rambling or not making cohesive sentences when speaking to others
  • Under or over dressing for the weather
  • Severe mood swings

Late Alzheimer’s disease is the most severe stage of the condition and typically lasts one to three years. Patients with late Alzheimer’s disease may experience any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • Inability to move on their own
  • Loss of bowel or bladder function
  • Inability to process information or articulate cohesive thoughts
  • Severe mood swings
  • Hallucinations

Some symptoms of mild Alzheimer’s may seem like part of the normal aging process. If you or a family member has multiple signs or symptoms, schedule an appointment your Mercy Health doctor to discuss.

Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s is challenging to diagnose in the early stages because the signs can mimic other conditions. If you or a family member is having trouble remembering everyday things, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.

During an exam, your doctor will take a full medical history (of you and your family members), evaluate your symptoms and perform a neurological exam. The neurological exam will test a patient’s reflexes, balance, muscle strength and coordination.

Other tools used for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Blood tests — although blood tests can’t diagnose Alzheimer’s, they can detect other conditions that have similar symptoms.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan — an MRI can provide detailed images of the brain to detect other brain conditions such as a tumor. Recent research has shown that MRIs may be able to indicate shrinkage in areas that have been affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
  • CT (computed tomography) scan — a CT scan will be able to identify if a patient is having a stroke or has a head injury.
  • PET (positive emission tomography) scan — a PET scan can show areas of the brain that are not functioning properly.

Treatments for Alzheimer’s disease

There isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, so the goal of treatment is to improve or maintain cognitive and behavioral symptoms as long as possible. Treatment may include:

Medications

Two types of medications, cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, are FDA-approved drugs used to treat cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s diseases. These medications may help with memory loss, problems with thinking and confusion. Medications such as antidepressants, anticonvulsants, anti-anxiety medications and sleep medications may be used to treat depression, behavioral, sleep or anxiety issues associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise and nutrition

Exercise and nutrition are important parts of a comprehensive Alzheimer’s treatment plan. Exercise can help relieve some of the behavioral or movement symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise keeps the body active, promotes heart health, can improve mood and help promote sleep. Eating a healthy diet is crucial in maintaining health as well as to avoid nutrition-related conditions such as dehydration, malnutrition and constipation.

Environment

Creating a safe, stable, routine environment is an integral part of any Alzheimer’s treatment plan. Steps to create a supportive environment for Alzheimer’s patients can include creating a structured, routine schedule for each day, organizing the house so that it is clutter free and easy to manage, keeping photos and memorabilia that bring joy around the house, and ensuring the patient carries a phone at all times that has key contacts that are easy to find.

Research is being done to understand the causes of Alzheimer’s disease so that treatments or cures can be developed.

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