Alzheimer’s disease is one of several forms of dementia, a degenerative brain disorder for which there is no known cure. With one in three seniors estimated to die of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, it is considered a major health concern in the U.S.
Currently, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia that people experience, accounting for between 60 and 80 percent of all cases. Alzheimer’s itself is the 6th most common cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s also a condition that is worsening. From 2000 to 2017, there was a 145 percent increase in the number of people who died from Alzheimer’s.
As Alzheimer’s becomes an increasing concern, more adults and their families are starting to understand the illness and recognize its signs earlier, making it possible for them to seek proper care.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that impacts the areas of the mind that control language, memory, and thoughts. By 2050, it’s estimated that 13.8 million people in the U.S. will have Alzheimer’s disease and, unfortunately, there is still no known cure.
Alzheimer’s progressively worsens over time. Most people begin to develop confusion or minor memory loss in their 60s, which then worsens to limited conversation skills and difficulty responding to the environment around them. As Alzheimer’s progresses, it can make it difficult or impossible for a person to safely go about their daily activities on their own.
Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
There is no test to show whether or not you have Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Typically, physicians will work with those who may have Alzheimer’s and their families to review symptoms and severity. From there, a tentative diagnosis can be made. Understanding the symptoms and when they appear can help you spot the onset of Alzheimer’s in yourself or someone else. Here are some of the most common early stage symptoms.
Disruption of Daily Life Due to Memory Loss: Many people suffer from forgetfulness from time to time, but when forgetfulness occurs so much that it impacts the way a person lives, it can be an early warning sign. For example, a person may ask the same question numerous times. They may need to create a note to remind themselves of simple things. They may also ask family members to take care of their day-to-day tasks, so they don’t forget to do them.
Problem Solving Becomes Difficult: It’s common for those with Alzheimer’s to find otherwise simple problems difficult to solve. A person with early stage Alzheimer’s disease may have trouble following a recipe. They may have difficulty paying bills or doing simple math. They may also find it difficult to manage multiple tasks at one time.
Easy Tasks Become a Struggle: Another common warning sign is a change in the way simple tasks are done. A person may not remember how to play a game they’ve played many times before. They may no longer be able to get to their favorite restaurant on their own. Other simple things, such as needing help to find a television show, can be early signs of a change.
Visual Image and Spatial Relationship Challenges: It is also common for a person to have trouble with distances and images. For example, someone with Alzheimer’s could have trouble driving because they cannot tell the difference in the amount of space between two objects or the difference in two colors. If you notice these changes, visit an optometrist. If the problem isn’t due to cataracts or another common eye issue, you could be dealing with Alzheimer’s.
Time and Place Challenges: Confusion with the day or time is common for those with Alzheimer’s. In some situations, a person may even forget where he or she is at that moment, or how they got there. If you notice these symptoms, make sure you have help for anyone involved, as trouble with location can be dangerous for those living alone.
Pulling Away from Social Activities: Many times, confusion leads to a lack of engagement and doing things that were once enjoyed activities. A person who struggles to remember things and knows that he or she may have difficulty spending time with friends, so they may choose to stay at home instead.
Losing Things and the Inability to Retrace Steps: Many people lose things. That act in itself is not necessarily worrisome. However, when a person forgets where they put something but cannot figure out how to retract his or her steps to find it, that could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. If this happens frequently or in conjunction with other symptoms, you may want to seek a professional assessment.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
As a progressive disease, people with Alzheimer’s will see their symptoms worsen over time. Though they may seem to have breaks in clarity and ability, moments of lucidity could be short lived and decrease in length and frequency as the disease progresses. It is rare for a person to experience a significant amount of improvement in any stage.
As Alzheimer’s progresses, there are various stages associated with changes, though they can differ between one individual to the next. Stages are also outlined differently by different organizations and physicians who prescribe to different diagnostic and treatment methods. The most commonly used Alzheimer’s stages are outlined in seven steps.
Initially, a person is healthy and active. This person has no dementia evident. Prior to diagnosis, they may have simple instances of forgetfulness. Then they’ll progress through the following seven stages.
- Diagnosis occurs, but there is no significant real day-to-day impairment. A person is still able to work through their daily life.
- Very mild cognitive decline begins. This may cause the person to forget where they are or randomly be unable to remember what they were doing.
- Mild cognitive decline becomes clear. In this stage, a person with Alzheimer’s disease may struggle to handle some tasks, especially those that rely on problem solving and memorization.
- Early-stage dementia sets in. At this stage, a person is far more likely to suffer a wide range of limitations. They may still be able to perform most day-to-day tasks, but it gets harder for them to handle those tasks on their own. Many people living with dementia choose to seek support when this becomes a consistent issue.
- Moderate cognitive decline occurs. This is when it may be necessary to consider more advanced care. Daily tasks and living safely can be difficult due to forgetfulness or confusion.
- Mid-stage dementia occurs. As they near the final stages, a clear worsening of symptoms is evident. A person at this stage is likely to not remember names and faces. They may seem to drift off into another time period. Brief moments of lucidity may still occur, but the majority of the person’s time is taken up by the illness.
- Severe cognitive decline begins. This is the final stage. Many times, the mind breaks down so much so that a person does not know his or her surroundings, cannot remember children and is unable to care for themselves.
Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease
One of the most worrisome components of Alzheimer’s disease is that it can begin at any time and has no clear progression timeline. In some cases, it may be a rapid progression through the stages of Alzheimer’s where those living with the illness appear to go through stages quickly, even skipping over some stages to arrive at a later stage. Other times, a person may be able to remain at a functional level for a lengthy period of time.
There is very little understood in terms of why people progress at different rates and what may trigger a worsening of the condition. If you have Alzheimer’s or are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, pay close attention to the symptoms and whether or not they appear to be getting worse. Understand your limits. Those with Alzheimer’s can live happy, full lives, but even at earlier stages that’s often easier with professional help, such as memory care in a supportive living community.
Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
The cause of Alzheimer’s is still unclear. Research into causes and treatments is ongoing, with different medical organizations looking into different potential causes. What we do know is that there is a breakdown of function within the brain for various reasons. It is believed that some of the causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s itself may be due to genetic factors. If a person’s family members had it, they are at a higher risk of developing it themselves.
In Alzheimer’s disease, it is more common that it develops as a component of the aging process. Changes in the neurons, which do the work of the brain, begin to occur. Neurons may be damaged, making it so they cannot connect and communicate as they did. Many times, a neuron’s condition will worsen so much so that it eventually dies. As more neurons die it can cause permanent neurological problems.
It is believed that there are at least two types of problems that lead to this. The first is plaque development. Beta-amyloid, a protein that’s often left over from biological functions, begins to build in the brain. The plaques cluster together to create a damaging effect on the neurons and stop them from working properly.
The second problem is the development of tangles in the brain. Tau proteins, which are typically responsible for transporting nutrients and essential materials to the cells, become damaged. As they become unstable they tangle together inside of neurons, creating a stoppage of the flow of information through the brain.
Researchers don’t understand what triggers these problems or the best way to stop them from becoming worse, but they do believe they contribute to Alzheimer’s.
Risk Factors for Developing Alzheimer’s Disease
Risk factors are another element that’s not fully understood. The medical community cannot say for sure what makes someone at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, although they have identified some likely possibilities.
For instance, the possible link between Alzheimer’s and genetics means that having a family member with Alzheimer’s may make a person more likely to develop it. However, genetics alone is likely not the only risk factor. Age is also a factor, and by far the biggest. Those who are over the age of 65 are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. And, while Alzheimer’s impacts men and women, it tends to impact more women overall.
Those who have had past head trauma, poor sleep patterns, or suffered from down syndrome are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. There is even increasing evidence that poor exercise, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol figures, and uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes can increase your risk.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease
Aside from monitoring a person’s symptoms and risk factors, it can be hard to diagnosis Alzheimer’s disease. The only fully conclusive information occurs after death during an autopsy. However, there are lab tests and imaging tests that may help rule out other causes and therefore help to diagnose this condition. MRIs are a common type of testing for the condition.
If you’re concerned about Alzheimer’s in yourself or a friend or family member, the best course of action is to seek a professional medical assessment. Physicians who have experience with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can review your symptoms and timeline to determine whether or not you have Alzheimer’s and should start treatment.
Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. However, medications may help with symptom management and slowing the progression. This includes cholinesterase inhibitors which work to increase cell-to-cell communication. Memantine is another type of drug that can do this and works in those who have more advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
Research into additional treatments is ongoing. In many cases, physicians also recommend regular exercise, a healthy diet and other wellness activities to help those with Alzheimer’s maintain their health and avoid aggravating the disease.
A healthy lifestyle can help individuals manage their Alzheimer’s, but it should not be considered a preventative treatment, or even one that will slow the disease. Everyone with Alzheimer’s will eventually progress throughout the stages of the disease until it becomes fatal. Many times, those with Alzheimer’s will pass away from another illness, such as pneumonia, that sets in due to the weakened immune system.
Care for Alzheimer’s Disease
During the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a person may still be able to be socially active, work and handle day-to-day tasks. However, as the condition progresses, this becomes much more difficult to do. This is when some individuals may benefit from memory care support.
A caregiver may be needed part or full time, even at earlier stages of the disease. The best way to determine if someone is capable of maintaining his or her quality of life and health on their own is to talk with a physician. In some situations, a person may need a bit of help during the day with hygiene and medications. However, as stages progress, most people with Alzheimer’s disease will find themselves in a state of confusion that makes it difficult or unsafe for them to live on their own. A physician will be able to help determine the best time to seek additional help or even full-time care.
In most cases, those with Alzheimer’s will benefit from full-time support at some point in the disease’s progression. At that point, memory care is often the best solution. Memory care provides 24-hour care to those with Alzheimer’s or other memory impairments in supportive living communities.
The Brielle offers one such memory care community. Our memory care staff is experienced in caring for multiple types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. We’re dedicated not only to providing a high level of care, but also to improving the quality of life for all our residents living with memory impairments. If you or a family member is living with Alzheimer’s, contact us for more information on how we can help provide an engaging, supportive environment.