Understanding Alzheimer’s Symptoms & Treatment

More than 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s, and the disease currently costs the country $259 billion every year. The number of cases is expected to climb to 16 million by 2050 and increase annual costs to as much as $1.1 trillion.

Diagnosed using mental tests, mood evaluations, physical exams, and neurological assessments, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia for seniors. Between 60 and 80 percent of dementia cases are the result of the disease. Doctors are careful to perform additional screenings to rule out other possibilities before making the diagnosis because the label of Alzheimer’s suggests a long and difficult road ahead.

What Is Alzheimer’s?

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) defines Alzheimer’s disease as a progressive brain disorder characterized by memory problems, changes in behavior and cognitive decline.

Your brain has many unique areas connected by neurons, and these nerve cells need to communicate for the mind and body to function correctly. In Alzheimer’s, three different processes interrupt this communication:

  • Plaques composed of beta-amyloid proteins – called amyloid plaques – build up in the spaces between cells
  • Tangles of tau proteins form within cells
  • Neurons lose connections

It’s believed Alzheimer’s begins in the hippocampus, the part of your brain responsible for the formation of memories. As the disease worsens, more cells become damaged and the brain begins to shrink. Neurons can’t send signals to each other, so major parts of the brain are unable to work as they should and no longer connect properly with the body. These changes account for the major symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

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What Are the Symptoms?

Not all cases of dementia or problems with memory are the result of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s moves progressively through stages, manifesting with symptoms more severe than simple forgetfulness or moodiness.

The earliest stage of the disease is similar to age-related memory loss. You may notice an aging family member has trouble remembering things he or she just learned or was recently told. More serious symptoms develop as the disease progresses into the moderate and severe stages:

  • Changes in mood and behavior
  • Progressive memory loss
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Unfounded fears or suspicions
  • Difficulty with mobility
  • Wandering or getting lost
  • Loss of the ability to complete familiar tasks
  • Difficulty planning or solving problems
  • Trouble recalling words
  • Difficulty following or participating in conversations
  • Misplacing or losing items
  • Impaired judgement
  • Isolation or social withdrawal
  • Problems managing money
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Hallucinations and paranoia

Because of these changes, some Alzheimer’s patients become aggressive or antagonistic toward family members. They may accuse you of stealing things they’ve misplaced or deliberately hiding their belongings. It’s important to remember these behaviors are the result of the disease and not deliberate personal attacks.

Who Is Commonly Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s?

About one out of every 20 people over the age of 65 receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the disease becomes more common as people get older. Women appear to be affected twice as much as men, although it’s unclear what role gender plays in the disease.

If there’s a history of Alzheimer’s in your family, you may be more likely to develop the disease. About half of the children whose parents had Alzheimer’s also wind up being diagnosed. Cases resulting from genetic predisposition can strike people as young as age 35.

Other conditions and diseases may be associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. These include:

  • History of severe head injury
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Obesity

Many of these conditions are related to the progression of cardiovascular disease, suggesting a connection between lifestyle and the development of Alzheimer’s.

What Treatments Are Available?

Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are several treatment options for those who are diagnosed. Doctors prescribe two main types of medications for memory-related symptoms:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors, including donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne) and rivastigmine (Exelon) prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine to prevent its depletion and improve communication between nerve cells in the brain
  • Memantine (Namenda) targets different brain communication pathways to address symptoms in and slow progression of more advanced forms of the disease

Doctors may also suggest other medications to aid with depression, anxiety and neurological symptoms accompanying memory loss.

Research is being conducted to find treatments for behavioral symptoms and to improve management of Alzheimer’s. Some scientists are investigating means of treating root causes of the disease, including new drugs, lifestyle changes, physical activity, cognitive training, and targeted immune therapy. Treating other conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, may also provide a viable path to reducing the prevalence of Alzheimer’s.

Herbal remedies, acupuncture, CoQ10, vitamin E, phosphatidylserine, aromatherapy and therapeutic doses of omega-3 fatty acids have all been suggested as alternatives to traditional treatment. Studies have failed to show significant improvements with these therapies, but more research is required to determine efficacy.

Caring for Someone With Alzheimer’s

If you’re caring for a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s, you’re one of the 15 million caregivers providing unpaid assistance to those with the disease. Individuals with Alzheimer’s live and average of three to 10 years after being diagnosed, so it’s important to prepare for the challenges this time will bring.

There are many simple ways you can help an Alzheimer’s patient:

  • Learn about symptoms and what your role should be at each stage
  • Arrange for extra help and care if needed
  • Be there to assist with daily activities, including meals, exercise and sleep
  • Help with organizing and cleaning the house
  • Keep the home safe to prevent accidents or injuries
  • Provide assistance with routine self-care, including bathing and getting dressed
  • Encourage regular conversations, maintaining a patient and calm attitude
  • Focus on simplicity and be straightforward with any instructions you give
  • Establish a daily routine, including quiet time with no distractions
  • Offer comfort if hallucinations or paranoia cause fear
  • Maintain physical activity and engagement in enjoyable hobbies as much as possible

As you care for an ailing loved one, don’t neglect yourself. You need to eat, sleep, exercise and socialize so that your own health doesn’t suffer. Remember self-care isn’t selfish; it’s vital to being an effective caregiver.

New cases of Alzheimer’s appear every 66 seconds, and one in three seniors dies with the disease. With death rates rising 89 percent since 2000, Alzheimer’s continues to be an epidemic among the aging population. Family members, healthcare providers and caregivers need to educate themselves about this complex disease in order to offer help, support and guidance as the symptoms progress.

Knowing early symptoms and getting treatment right away can mitigate some of the effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain. It’s essential for those diagnosed to maintain healthy lifestyles and build strong support systems so that they can remain alert and active as long as possible. Although Alzheimer’s is still a serious disease, science is continuing to uncover potential treatments to reduce its impact on seniors and their families.

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