Kevin Lutz, MD, FACP
Jul 1 2019

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks and function independently

AgingBrain Health

What is Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks and function independently. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults.  It's estimated that over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's. And it's the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

It is not exactly known what starts the disease process. But it is known that damage to the brain can start 10 to 20 years before any symptoms begin. Aging is the single largest risk factor. The brain has 100 billion nerve cells that are interconnected, forming complex communication networks. Groups of cells perform special jobs like thinking and remembering. Alzheimer's kills some of these cells causing a chain reaction of brain destruction. It is believed that two abnormal structures, plaques and tangles, are responsible for killing the brain's nerve cells. Plaques are deposits of protein that build up in spaces between nerve cells. Tangles are fibers of a different protein that build up inside cells. Most people develop plaques and tangles as they age. But those with Alzheimer's develop greater numbers. Genes almost certainly play a role in the disease. Someone with a parent who had the disease is more likely to have it, too. There is some evidence that people with high blood pressure and high cholesterol have a greater chance of getting Alzheimer's. More rarely, head injuries may be a factor, too. The more severe the head injuries are, the greater the risk of Alzheimer's later in life. Scientists are still studying many of these theories.

What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease?

It’s essential to know the signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Some early signs of the disease are: finding it hard to remember things, asking the same questions over and over, having trouble paying bills or solving simple math problems, getting lost in a familiar place, losing things or putting things in odd places. Later signs of Alzheimer’s disease include more serious deficits in daily living like forgetting how to brush your teeth or comb your hair, being confused about time, people, and places, forgetting the names of common things or even possibly wandering away from home. Everyone has occasional memory lapses. It is normal to lose track of where you put your keys or forget the name of an acquaintance. But the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease persists and worsens, affecting the ability to function at work or at home. Normal aging examples include forgetting which day it is and remembering it later or sometimes forgetting which word to use verses Alzheimer’s signs such as losing track of the date or time of year and having trouble communicating with others.

What are some other causes of memory problems?

Not all confusion and forgetfulness is Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms may look like Alzheimer’s disease, but they are caused by other problems. Other medical conditions that can cause serious memory problems include a bad reaction to certain medicines, emotional problems such as depression, drinking too much alcohol, blood clots or tumors in the brain, head injury  (such as a concussion from a fall or accident), a lack of some vitamins and minerals and kidney, liver or thyroid problems. These medical conditions are serious and need to be treated.

Are there treatments for Alzheimer’s disease?

There are medications that can treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Although current treatments cannot stop neurodegenerative diseases from progressing, they may temporarily slow the worsening of symptoms. This improves the quality of life for people with the disease. The first class of drugs supports a chemical in the brain called acetylcholine. Examples of the medications are: donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne).                                             

Studies have shown that preserved thinking skills later in life and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease are associated with participating in social events, reading, dancing, playing board games, creating art, playing an instrument, and other activities that require mental and social engagement. It is essential to keep the mind active!

People with dementia live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival with the disease can range from three to twenty years, depending on age and other health conditions. In the late stage of dementia, a person typically relies on others for all of his or her daily needs.

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