Alzheimer’s Disease: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments
The sixth leading cause of death in America, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that affects cognition and memory. It may affect more people than we realize; some people believe cases are 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.
Avalina Senior Living is an assisted living community with memory care services that prioritize a high-quality, engaged, safe lifestyle for residents who have Alzheimer’s disease. To help you understand what to expect if someone close to you has Alzheimer’s disease, we’ve compiled the following information on its causes, risk factors, symptoms and treatments.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a progressive type of dementia. Although the two terms, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. All cases of Alzheimer’s disease are dementia, but not all cases of dementia are Alzheimer’s. Dementia is a broad term used to describe various conditions that affect thinking, memory or cognitive ability, which affect a person’s daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases.
Some people have two types of dementia, which is called mixed dementia. This could mean they have Alzheimer’s in conjunction with another type of dementia, such as vascular dementia.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease at this time, but there are treatments that can slow the progression of the disease and improve the quality of life for those who have it.
Although many people have heard of this life-altering disease, there is a great deal of misinformation about it. The following are some helpful facts about the disease to further explain what the disease entails:
- Alzheimer’s can affect anyone, but individuals who are 65 and older and those who have a family history of the disease are at greater risk
- There is no singular expected outcome of Alzheimer’s; some people 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 millionAmericans 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 have. As this is a progressive disease, these symptoms will likely begin mild and progress to become severe, life-impacting symptoms. People who have Alzheimer’s disease may:
- Have trouble with familiar or easy tasks, like operating an oven or microwave
- Become disoriented easily, not understanding where they are or getting their days and nights confused
- Experience dramatic changes in personality or mood, sometimes even transforming a kind, patient person into a demanding or judgmental one
- Experience poor judgment and an inability to recognize a dangerous situation
- Feel unable to handle problem solving
- Have difficulty grooming or washing themselves
- Withdraw from family members and friends
- Struggle with their memory, forgetting appointments, failing to recognize family members and friends, or forgetting if they’ve taken their medication
- Misplace things frequently, losing money, credit cards, possessions, etc.
Stages and Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease
There are several stages to the progression of Alzheimer’s:
Stage 1: This is the first stage and often involves no symptoms at all. This would be the stage a person could be diagnosed based on family history.
Stage 2: This is when the first and most mild symptoms begin to appear, usually primarily mild forgetfulness.
Stage 3: Mental impairments and mild physical issues start to emerge. This could include even more cognitive impairments, such as memory loss. This is the stage when those who are closest to the individual might notice something is amiss, but the general public and those who only have minor interactions with the person might not notice the changes.
Stage 4: This is the stage when a diagnosis is usually made, often while the condition is still considered mild. Sufferers often start having difficulty with daily tasks, and memory loss increases.
Stage 5: Moderate to severe symptoms show up in this stage, often promoting concern by caregivers, friends or family members.
Stage 6: At this stage, the person with Alzheimer’s disease begins to need help with basic household and hygienic tasks, such as dressing and eating.
Stage 7: This is the final stage of Alzheimer’s, and it can include the loss of facial expression or speech. Symptoms become 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 clues that point to the development of the degenerative condition that seem to indicate a greater chance of having the disease. They include:
- Age: Age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. The risk of the disease increases after individuals reach the age of 65.
- Family History: As with many other diseases, Alzheimer’s disease is believed to have a genetic factor. If an individual has siblings or a parent who develops the condition, their chances of having the disease increases – however, having family members with Alzheimer’s does not mean that you will necessarily get it, too.
- Gender: Women are diagnosed with the disease more frequently than men.
- Head Injury: There have been some studies that connect major head injuries and the development of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
- Down Syndrome:The correlation between the two conditions is not understood, but there is a clear link between Down Syndrome and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Some individuals who have Down Syndrome develop Alzheimer’s in their 30s or 40s.
- Other Factors:There is also a belief that high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels can increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Diagnosis and Medical Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease
There is no one test associated with diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of one definitive test, most doctors will complete several tests to diagnose the condition. These include:
Mental Tests: Many times, doctors will begin with simple mental tests to assess a patient for memory loss, as well as orientation issues. This can include asking the patients questions like:
- Who is the president?
- What day is it?
- What season is it?
- Can you recall a short list of words?
Physical Exam: A doctor will likely progress to the next stage of diagnosis, physical exams. These can include checking a patient’s blood pressure or checking their heart rate or temperature. Blood and urine samples might also be checked by a lab.
Neurological Exam: This stage of diagnosing Alzheimer’s includes ruling out conditions like infections or stroke. A neurological exam will evaluate a patient’s speech, muscle tone and reflexes.
Imaging Tests: A doctor might want to take some images to create an accurate picture of what’s going on inside the patient’s brain. These can include:
- Computed Tomography Exam: Commonly called a CT scan, this is an X-ray image of the brain, allowing the doctor to check for abnormalities in the brain
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Also called an MRI, this test helps doctors see structural, bleeding and inflammation issues within the brain
- Position Emission Tomography: Known as simply a PET scan, this test allows doctors to detect plaque buildup, which is related to the development of Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s Treatment Options
While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatments and medications that can delay the progression of the condition and ease some of the symptoms. The following are some of the most utilized treatments:
Medications: When Alzheimer’s is in the early to moderate stages, doctors will often prescribe specific medications to help reduce symptom severity. These include Rivastigmine or Exelon, donepezil or Aricept. These meds work by ensuring high levels of acetylcholine in the brain, which aids memory. With moderate Alzheimer’s, doctors will recommend donepezil or Aricept or memantine or Namenda. Memantine blocks the way excess glutamate effects the body. Glutamate is released in greater amounts in Alzheimer’s patients. Some doctors will also recommend antianxiety medications, antidepressants or antipsychotics to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Coping Strategies: In addition to medication, doctors also recommend developing coping strategies for living with the disease. They can include helping patients improve focus on tasks, limiting confusion, avoiding confrontation and getting adequate rest.
Supplements: There is limited data indicating vitamin E can help with declining mental abilities. If people with Alzheimer’s choose this route, they should check with their doctor about possible interactions with other medications.
If your family member or friend is suffering from this frustrating, life-altering disease, the most important thing you can do is remain kind 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 Avalina 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 assisted living communities for people with Alzheimers, request a free copy of Avalina Senior Living’s 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 954-835-4800.