Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disorder that causes the brain cells to degenerate and die, which causes memory loss and cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease is a physical medical condition that affects the brain. It is the most common cause of dementia, which is a continuous decline in thinking, social skills, behavior, and other mental abilities. Dementia disrupts someone’s ability to function independently.
Our brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that connect to each other. When you have Alzheimer’s disease, the connections between the cells are lost. The loss of connection is caused by proteins that build up and form abnormal structures known as plaques and tangles. Because of the plaques and tangles, your nerve cells die and you lose brain tissue. Also, there are important chemicals in your brain that help send signals between cells, but when you have Alzheimer’s disease, you have less of these ‘chemical messengers.’ As a result, the signals between cells are not passed on. The damage often starts in the region of your brain that controls memory and the process can begin years before you experience the first symptoms. The loss of neurons spreads to other parts of your brain in a predictable pattern. When the disease reaches its later stages, the brain will shrink significantly.
It is still not fully understood why Alzheimer’s disease happens, so the exact cause is still largely unknown. Scientist believes that Alzheimer’s disease is majorly caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that affect the brain. Less than 1% of cases are caused by specific genetic changes. Although it is still unclear why the disease can occur, some factors will make you more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. these factors include:
- Age. Old age is the most common risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some people thought that developing Alzheimer’s is a natural part of aging and it is important to know that Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. However, your likelihood of developing the disease does increase as you age.
- Family history or genetic. If your parent or sibling has Alzheimer’s disease, your chance of developing the disease is higher. It is still unexplained how Alzheimer’s disease among families can happen. People with Down’s syndrome also have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease due to a difference in genetic makeup. In people with Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease can appear 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population.
- Gender. The exact reason how gender can affect the chance of Alzheimer’s is unknown. However, there are around twice as many women as men over 65 who have Alzheimer’s. Some possible explanations are because women tend to live longer than men and because Alzheimer’s in women can be linked to the loss of hormone estrogen after menopause.
- Post head trauma. If you have had severe trauma in your head, you have a greater risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Poor lifestyle choices. Poor sleep patterns, poor diet, alcohol abuse, lack of exercise, smoking cigarettes (and exposure to second-hand smoke).
- Health Problems are known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. These medical problems include stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity, and heart problems. Also, untreated depression can lead to Alzheimer’s.
Although most of those risk factors are not preventable, you can modify your lifestyle habits to lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Eat a diet of whole-foods that is fresh and low in saturated fat
- Exercise regularly
- Manage your high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes
- Try to quit smoking
- Participate in social events, dance, read, play board games, create art, play an instrument, and do other things that require mental and social engagement.
Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, meaning it will gradually damage more parts of your brain over time. The earliest sign of the disease is having difficulty remembering recent conversations and events. It may also be hard for you to remember things and organize your thoughts. As your disease progress, these memory impairments worsen and other symptoms start to develop. The first person to notice that your symptoms have got worse is usually a family member or a friend. Symptoms that occur as the disease progresses include:
- Forgetting appointments or significant dates
- Getting lost in a familiar place
- Forgetting a friend’s name
- Struggling to find the right word in a conversation
- Losing items around the house
- Struggling to follow a conversation
- Seeing things in judging distances or in three dimensions
- Struggling with decision making, problem-solving, and carrying out a sequence of tasks
- Becoming confused and losing track of the day
In the first stages of the disease, you will experience changes in your mood. You may feel depressed, anxious, or easily annoyed. Some people also lose interest in joining activities, doing their hobbies, or talking to people. These changes can be really difficult for you or the people you are close to.
In the later stages of the disease, problems with memory, language, orientation, and reasoning get worse. You may also need day-to-day support. Some people in the later stages start having delusions and hallucinations. Many people also behave in strange ways that are not normal for them. As the disease gets worse, you may become less aware of what is happening around you, have difficulties walking or eating without help, and become frailer.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s usually includes self-reporting of symptoms along with information from a close family member or friend. Your doctor will likely perform a physical and neurological exam to test your reflexes, ability to walk across the room, muscle tone and strength, sense of sight and hearing, balance, and coordination. Your doctor may also do some blood tests such as MRI, CT scan, and PET scan.
Currently, Alzheimer’s disease has no cure. However, there are some treatments that will help people with the disease. Medication can help with memory symptoms as well as other cognitive changes. The medications include:
- Cholinesterase Inhibitors. These drugs preserve a chemical messenger that is depleted in your brain to boost your levels of cell-to-cell communication. They also improve neuropsychiatric symptoms.
- Memantine (Namenda). This drug slows the progression of symptoms and works in the cell communication network. Sometimes, your doctor will use the drug in combination with cholinesterase inhibitors.
Other than drugs, there are also natural treatments to help with Alzheimer’s. These natural treatments are creating a supportive and safe environment for the person with Alzheimer’s disease. If you are a family member, you need to adapt to the living situation of the person with Alzheimer’s. You can keep their medications in a secure location, keep valuables in a safe place, arrange Bills to be on automatic payment, or make sure the person with Alzheimer’s carries identification and wears a medical alert bracelet.