Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 70% of all people with dementia
- Alzheimer’s disease damages the brain, resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behaviour
- The biggest risk factor for having Alzheimer’s disease is increasing age, with 1 in 4 people over 85 having dementia. 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.
- Sporadic Alzheimer’s disease can affect anyone of any age
- Familial Alzheimer’s disease is a very rare genetic condition, with an age of onset of less than 65 years. 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.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting up to 70% of all people with dementia. It was first recorded in 1907 by Dr Alois Alzheimer. Dr Alzheimer reported the case of Auguste Deter, a middle-aged woman with dementia and specific changes in her brain. For the next 60 years Alzheimer’s disease was considered a rare condition that afflicted people under the age of 65. It was not until the 1970s that Dr Robert Katzman declared (rather boldly at the time) that senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were the same condition and that neither were a normal part of aging.
Alzheimer’s disease can be either sporadic or familial.
Sporadic Alzheimer’s disease can affect adults at any age, but usually occurs after age 65 and is the most common form of Alzheimer’s disease.
Familial Alzheimer’s disease is a very rare genetic condition, caused by a mutation in one of several genes. The presence of mutated genes means that the person will eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, usually in their 40’s or 50’s.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
In the early stages the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be very subtle. However, it often begins with lapses in memory and difficulty in finding the right words for everyday objects.
Other symptoms may include:
- Persistent and frequent memory difficulties, especially of recent events
- Vagueness in everyday conversation
- Apparent loss of enthusiasm for previously enjoyed activities or the loss of initiative
- Taking longer to do routine tasks and misplacing things
- Forgetting well-known people or places
- Inability to process questions and instructions and having difficulty with language
- Deterioration of social skills
- Emotional unpredictability – changes in mood or behaviour
- Disorientation to time and place
- Changes in gait or walking
Symptoms vary and the disease progresses at a different pace according to the individual and the areas of the brain affected. A person’s abilities may fluctuate from day to day, or even within the one day, becoming worse in times of stress, fatigue or ill-health.
How does Alzheimer’s Disease progress?
The rate of progression of the disease varies from person to person.
However, the disease does lead eventually to complete dependence and finally death, usually from another illness such as pneumonia. A person may live from three to twenty years with Alzheimer’s disease, with the average being seven to ten years.
How is Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosed?
There is currently no single test to identify Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis is made only after careful clinical consultation.
The clinical diagnosis might include:
- A detailed medical history
- A thorough physical and neurological examination
- A test of intellectual function
- Psychiatric assessment
- A neuropsychological tests
- Blood and urine tests
- Lumbar puncture for cerebral spinal fluid tests
- Medical imaging (MRI, PET)
These tests will help to eliminate other conditions with similar symptoms such as nutritional deficiencies or depression. After eliminating other causes, a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can be made with about 80% to 90% accuracy if the symptoms and signs are appropriate. The diagnosis can only be confirmed after death by examination of the brain tissue.
It is important to have an early and accurate diagnosis to determine whether a treatable condition other than Alzheimer’s disease, is causing the symptoms. If Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed, medical treatment and other assistance can be discussed.
Is there treatment available?
At present there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, one group of drugs called cholinergeric drugs appears to be providing some temporary improvement in cognitive functioning for some people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
Drugs can also be prescribed for secondary symptoms such as restlessness or depression or to help the person with dementia sleep better.
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 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 to 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 might 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
Exercise your body
Higher levels of physical activity has 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.