Alzheimer's disease is a physical illness that causes radical changes in the brain. As healthy brain tissues degenerate, persons suffering from Alzheimer's experience a steady decline in memory and in the ability to use their brain to perform previously familiar tasks.
- Over time, a person with Alzheimer's disease has trouble remembering, speaking, learning, making judgments, and planning.
- Persons suffering from Alzheimer's are often moody, restless, and sometimes mean.
- Alzheimer's disease affects almost all aspects of brain functioning, including personality, and the ability to perform the most basic activities of daily functioning.
Alzheimer's disease is a an irreversible brain disorder with no known cure.
The cause of Alzheimer's disease is not yet known.
Alzheimer's disease is always fatal, but the decline takes several years in most cases.
- Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for as much as 70% of all cases of dementia.
- Age is one of the most important risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. The percentage of persons suffering from Alzheimer's disease doubles every 5 years beyond the age of 65.
- Women are more likely to develop the disease than men are – in part, because women live longer.
- People who have a brother, sister, or parent suffering from Alzheimer's disease have a slightly higher chance of developing the disease. Right now about 3 percent have a proven hereditary link (genetics).
- Heredity plays a much larger role in early-onset (before age 65) Alzheimer's. About 500,000 Americans suffer from early onset Alzheimer's. The number is growing.
ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE is a devastating mental disorder in which a severe loss of memory and other mental functions causes most patients to require institutional care. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
The Alzheimer's Association estimates that more than 5 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer's disease, making it the most prevalent type of brain function loss, accounting for nearly 65% of all dementia cases. The World Health Organization estimates that 35 million people suffer from this disease worldwide.
There is no cure, but studies have shown that patients who engage in simple mental activities, such as working jigsaw puzzles, can slow down the progression of this terrible disease.
Symptoms Of Alzheimer's Disease
- Memory loss
- Changes in mood or behavior
- Changes in personality
- Loss of initiative
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks
- Problems with language
- Disorientation to time and place
- Poor or decreased judgment
- Problems with abstract thinking
- Changes in gait or walking
- Misplacing things
As Alzheimer's progresses memory problems persist and worsen.
People with Alzheimer's often:
- Repeat themselves
- Forget conversations
- Routinely misplace things, often putting them in illogical locations
- Have problems with abstract thinking
- Are unable to maintain a schedule or keep appointments
- Eventually forget the names of family members and everyday objects
One early sign of Alzheimer's is the inability to balance a checkbook or properly manage finances. Eventually this worsens until a person has trouble recognizing and dealing with numbers.
Disorientation is another early sign of Alzheimer's. The inability to drive to and locate familiar places. The inability to find the bathroom in the home of a close friend or relative.
Persons's suffering from Alzheimer's disease often lose their sense of time, days, dates, and years. They can find themselves lost in familiar surroundings.
Hoarding can be an early sign of Alzheimer's. Continually buying items like toilet paper, tooth paste, shampoo, or salad dressing can be a sign of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's or dementia.
Personality changes can be an early sign of Alzheimer's. Constant worries about money. Accusing others of stealing or people talking about them behind their back are examples.
- Mood swings
- Distrust in others
- Increased stubbornness
- Social withdrawal
No single factor has been identified as the cause of Alzheimer's disease.
Currently, scientists believe that it may take a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors to trigger the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
The causes of Alzheimer's disease are not well understood, but the effects of Alzheimer's are fairly well understood: Alzheimer's disease damages and kills the brain.
The ultimate cause of neuron death in Alzheimer's isn't known, but evidence suggests that the abnormal processing of a protein called beta-amyloid may be at fault.
The internal support structure for brain cells depends on the normal functioning of a protein called tau. In people with Alzheimer's, threads of tau protein undergo alterations that cause them to become twisted. Many researchers believe this may seriously damage neurons, causing them to die.
Alzheimer's usually affects people older than 65, but can affect those younger than 40. Less than 5 percent of people between 65 and 74 have Alzheimer's. For people 85 and older, that number jumps to nearly 50 percent.
Your risk of developing Alzheimer's appears to be slightly higher if a first-degree relative — parent, sister or brother — has the disease. Although the genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer's among families remain largely unexplained, researchers have identified several genetic mutations that greatly increase risk in some families.
Women are more likely than men are to develop the disease, in part because they live longer.
The same factors that put you at risk of heart disease may also increase the likelihood that you'll develop Alzheimer's disease. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Poorly controlled diabetes
In advanced Alzheimer's disease, people may lose all ability to care for themselves. This can make them more prone to additional health problems such as:
- Pneumonia. Difficulty swallowing food and liquids may cause people with Alzheimer's to inhale (aspirate) some of what they eat and drink into their airways and lungs, which can lead to pneumonia.
- Infections. Urinary incontinence which increases the risk of urinary tract infections. Untreated urinary tract infections can lead to more-serious, life-threatening infections.
- Injuries from falls. People with Alzheimer's may become disoriented, increasing their risk of falls. Falls can lead to fractures. In addition, falls are a common cause of serious head injuries, such as bleeding in the brain.
Doctors can diagnose Alzheimer's disease. However, Alzheimer's disease can only be diagnosed with complete accuracy after death via a brain autopsy.
To help distinguish Alzheimer's disease from other causes of memory loss, doctors typically rely on the following types of tests.
Blood tests may be done to help doctors rule out other potential causes of the dementia, such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies.
Sometimes doctors undertake a more extensive assessment of thinking and memory skills. This type of testing, which can take several hours to complete, is especially helpful in trying to detect Alzheimer's and other dementias at an early stage.
By looking at images of the brain, doctors may be able to pinpoint any visible abnormalities — such as clots, bleeding or tumors — that may be causing signs and symptoms.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI machine uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to produce detailed images of your brain. The entire procedure can take an hour or more. MRIs are painless, but some people feel claustrophobic in the machine.
Positron emission tomography (PET) can reveal areas of the brain that may be less active and the density of amyloid plaques.
Computerized tomography (CT). For a CT scan, you lie on a narrow table that slides into a small chamber. X-rays pass through your body from various angles, and a computer uses this information to create cross-sectional images, or slices, of your brain. The test is painless and takes about 20 minutes.
Treatments and drugs
Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease.
Only two types of medications have been proved to slow the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's.
This group of medications — which includes donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne) — works by improving the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.
Unfortunately, cholinesterase inhibitors don't work for everyone. Only about out half the people who take these drugs show improvement. Some people are forced to stop taking these medications due to side effects, which include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
The first drug approved to treat moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer's, memantine (Namenda) protects brain cells from damage caused by the chemical messenger glutamate.
Namenda is often used in combination with a cholinesterase inhibitor. Memantine's most common side effect is dizziness, although it also appears to increase agitation and delusional behavior in some people.
Lifestyle and home remedies
A healthy lifestyle may help prevent or postpone the development of Alzheimer's disease. Because Alzheimer's is most common in people over the age of 80, delaying the onset of the disease could increase the probability that people will die of other causes before Alzheimer's has a chance to develop.
Eat your veggies
Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet appears to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
Eating a Mediterranean diet is often suggested:
- Lots of fruits and vegetables
- Fish or poultry, instead of red meat
- Whole-grain breads and cereals
- Alternate sources of proteins, such as beans, nuts and seeds
- More olive oil and less saturated fat
Higher levels of physical activity have been associated with a lower incidence of Alzheimer's disease.
Exercise your brain
Maintaining mental fitness may delay onset of dementia. Some research shows that lifelong mental exercise and learning may promote the growth of additional synapses, the connections between neurons, and delay the onset of dementia.
Right now, there's no proven way to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
You may be able to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease by reducing your risk of heart disease. Many of the same factors that increase your risk of heart disease can also increase your risk of dementia. The main players appear to be blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
Keeping active — physically, mentally and socially — also seems to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Early onset Alzheimer's disease
The term early onset refers to Alzheimer's that occurs in a person under age 65. Early onset individuals may be employed or have children still living at home. People who have early onset dementia may be in any stage of dementia – early, middle or late. Experts estimate that some 500,000 people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.
PUZZLES TO REMEMBER is a project that provides puzzles to nursing homes and other institutions that care for Alzheimer's patients.
PLEASE HELP US supply these puzzles, either by using the "DONATE" button at the top of the page to make a contribution, or by contributing your new or gently used puzzles to our program.
WHY THIS APPROACH?
Other programs raise money for research, which is an important long-range goal. Our approach is to benefit Alzheimer's patients more immediately by providing activities that will bring them pleasure while also slowing down the progression of the disease. Instead of focusing on far-off goals, our approach will realize a more immediate benefit to today's patients.
Studies have shown that working puzzles is a form of mental activity that not only engages and stimulates Alzheimer's patients, it also slows down the progression of the disease and thus provides important salutary benefits.
This is very important for patients in the early stages of the disease, including those who have not yet been diagnosed. For these people, the working of puzzles and similar mental activities can significantly postpone the onset of symptoms or avoid these symptoms altogether.
Painting and other forms of artistic and creative expression also have strong, beneficial effects, and often result in improvement in overall brain function.
Here is a partial listing of some references about the benefits of puzzle-solving and artistic activities for Alzheimer's patients:
Bob DeMarco is the editor of the Alzheimer's Reading Room and an Alzheimer's caregiver. Bob has written more than 1,050 articles with more than 8,000 links on the Internet. Bob resides in Delray Beach, FL.
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Original content Bob DeMarco and Max Wallack, Alzheimer's Reading Room