Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive type of dementia that leads to problems in memory, behavior, and thinking. It is the most common form of dementia, which is a group of brain disorders that lead to the loss of social and intellectual abilities causing interference with activities of daily living. For people who have Alzheimer’s disease, the connections between brain cells slowly break down and die, which causes a progressive decline in mental function. It’s vital to remember that Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging, even though the most indicative risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s is increasing age.
Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be caused by structures in the brain called plaques and tangles that damage the cells in the brain. Plaques are deposits of a protein fragment that collect in the spaces between nerve fibers. Tangles are twisted protein fiber that builds up inside cells. While all people develop both plaques and tangles, people who have Alzheimer’s disease develop much more in a far more predictable pattern, spreading from areas of the brain that control memory to other parts of the brain.
Alzheimer’s disease management and medication can stave off many of the symptoms, temporarily improving the quality of life and increasing independence. As Alzheimer’s disease does not have a cure, it’s important that families and people with this progressive illness seek supportive services as soon as a diagnosis is made.
While a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease changes everything in your life, it does not do so all at once. Instead, it is a disorder that develops over several years and in three broad stages: mild, moderate, and then severe. Early diagnosis and prompt treatment can dramatically improve the quality of life during these three stages.
Mild Alzheimer’s begins when you cannot recall something you just learned. You may notice that it’s harder to recall things, make decisions, and navigate your way around new places. People around you may not notice that you are experiencing these problems. Mild Alzheimer’s can last for many years. Although you may still be able to live on your own during this time, you’ll require a large support system of family, friends, doctors, and local support groups.
Moderate Alzheimer’s is the longest stage of the disease, lasting many years for some. During this part of the disease, your memory will progressively get worse. You may find that you have problems thinking clearly and speaking properly. You may not always remember your loved ones, you may forget the day of the week, and have trouble recalling where you are. Performing normal daily activities may become a challenge, causing you to need assistance with activities such as bathing or dressing. Your personality may change, causing you to become depressed or anxious. Additionally, you may believe that people are lying to you or stealing from you. Periods of anger or violence may occur. During this stage, you will likely live with a family member or in a residential care setting to make sure you are safe.
Severe Alzheimer’s, or late-stage Alzheimer’s will cause an even more serious decline in your memory. You may not know where you are, be able to speak more than a few words, and require help to sit, eat, and hold your head up. During severe Alzheimer’s, it is important that you are safe, as personality changes, such as an increase in wandering and decrease in your ability to care for yourself occur. An Alzheimer’s care setting will be the best place for you to live, keeping you comfortable and as functional as possible during the final stages of the disease.
It’s important to note that Alzheimer’s may progress differently for you or your loved one as no two disease progressions are alike. As most people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are over the age of 65, they generally live approximately 8 years after diagnosis (likely due to normal age progression), but may live up to 20 years past diagnosis. It’s important to make these years as happy and comfortable as possible for you or your loved one.
The prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease rises dramatically as a person ages. It’s estimated that 5.2 million people of all ages in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease; this estimate comprises 5 million individuals age 65 and older and about 200,000 people under the age of 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Today, an American is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease every 68 seconds – this number will only rise in the coming years. Researchers predict that by the year 2050, 15 million people in the United States will have Alzheimer’s disease.
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Mental Illness
Like many illnesses of the brain, it can be challenging to pinpoint a single root cause for Alzheimer’s disease. Most likely, Alzheimer’s stems from a combination of environmental, lifestyle, and genetic factors that affect your brain over time. Some causes may include:
Genetic: Less than five percent of Alzheimer’s diagnoses are the result of specific mutations in the body’s genes. Risk genes and deterministic genes can play a role in predicting whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Risk genes increase the chances of developing the disease, while deterministic genes directly lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease appears to be related to family history – if a parent or sibling has Alzheimer’s disease, it may increase the likelihood that you will develop the disease as well, but it is not a certainty.
Biological: Women, in part because they live longer than men, are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. A history of cardiovascular disease and stroke may also play a role in the occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease.
Environmental: Those who have experienced repeated head trauma or a severe head trauma (such as those who have a history of boxing or other contact sports) have a greater likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Psychological: Researchers have determined that there is an association between lifelong learning and stimulating social engagement. The more active you are and the more you stimulate your brain does reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, although the root cause for this is unknown.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease vary wildly among each person with the disease, and while the disease does follow a progression, it is not the same for each person. The following are common signs and symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease:
- Feeling depressed
- Mood swings
- Feeling aggressive toward others.
- Inability to concentrate on a single task, even if it is one you’ve performed many times in the past
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Impulsive behaviors
- Loss of inhibitions
- Worsening memory loss, especially as Alzheimer’s disease progresses
- Forgetting conversations and events without later recalling them
- Forgetting the names of friends and loved ones
- Placing possessions in odd locations and being unable to locate these items later
- Repeating the same question even after it’s been answered multiple times
- Inability to remember something that’s been recently learned
- Disorientation to time and place
- Worsening trouble thinking
- Challenges with making good judgments or decisions
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Increased falling
- Loss of coordination
- Trouble eating and drinking
- Problems swallowing
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
- Changes in ability to walk and navigate through the environment
- Changes in ability to do activities of daily living, such as dressing or bathing
- Distrusting other people and believing that they are lying, stealing, or out to get you
- Lashing out at others
- Behaving aggressively in a manner that is out of character
- Intense anger
- Violent mood swings
Effects of Alzheimer’s Disease
The effects of Alzheimer’s disease are dire, which is why diagnosis, treatment, and effective management of the disease process is essential. This generally involves a multi-disciplinary team working in a safe environment. Effects of Alzheimer’s may include:
- Falls – injuries from falls account for a large amount of serious injuries in the elderly and a disease such as Alzheimer’s. Falling can lead to broken bones, head injuries, and in some cases, death.
- Wandering – this is big risk for people with Alzheimer’s disease as it can cause potentially dangerous satiations.
- Abuse – violent mood swings can lead to acting out which can, in turn, lead to abuse.
- Malnutrition – during later stages of the disease, people with Alzheimer’s disease often cannot eat or drink on their own.
- Infection – As those who have late-stage Alzheimer’s begin to lose the coordination of the muscles that control chewing and swallowing, it makes the danger of inhalation of food matter into the lungs problematic, as this can lead to aspiration pneumonia. In addition to aspiration pneumonia, people with Alzheimer’s disease are also vulnerable to urinary tract infections as they lose control of their bowel and bladder. Urinary infections are very common in the elderly and can lead to very serious and life-threatening infections if not properly treated.
- Injuries – from falls or from poor obstacle navigation.