What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is nothing but a type of dementia that affects 60-70% of the population. It is characterized by a progressive decline in cognitive abilities like memory, reasoning, thinking, learning capacity, and language and is more likely to occur among people aged 65 years or more. The symptoms gradually worsen over time, starting with mild memory loss in the early stages, leading to being unresponsive in the later stages.
The Initial Call/Causes
Alzheimer’s disease begins with the death of neurons in the brain, specifically hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, causing further atrophy to the entire brain. Various autopsy reports have spotted tiny deposits known as plaques and tangles get to build upon the brain nerve tissues.
These plaques that are made up of a protein called beta-amyloid are found between the dying brain cells. The tangles, on the other hand, are made up of a protein called tau that occurs within the nerve cell. However, researchers do not fully understand the occurrence of this change.
There are two types of risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. One is the unavoidable risk factors about which we have no control over, and the second is the avoidable ones which we can control and take proper precautions.
The certain risk factors are:
- Family history of Alzheimer’s disease
Modifiable risk factors are:
- Maintaining a fit and healthy cardiovascular system
- Getting regular exercise
- Following a healthy diet
- Keeping the brain young and fit with lifelong learning and cognitive training.
Other miscellaneous factors that can make a person more prone to developing the condition are:
- Undergoing severe or repeated traumatic brain injuries
- Exposure to environmental contaminants, dangerous fumes, toxic metals, pesticides, or industrial chemicals
Several studies have also indicated that certain environmental factors lead to the development of this condition. Diabetes, hypertension, obesity, smoking, and dyslipidemia (abnormal amount of lipids in the blood) have been found to increase the risk. Interestingly, diet styles like the Mediterranean diet have been shown to reduce the risk of developing the condition.
Stages of the Disease
Alzheimer’s disease has three main stages. They are:
Mild Stage – This is the early stage that kicks off with not remembering certain familiar words. The person will start having problems coming up with the right word, forgetting information that one was recently exposed to. They even experience having trouble with organizing or planning, or even misplacing a valuable object.
Moderate Stage– This is the middle stage which is the longest stage that can last for many years. As progressing deeper into the latter stages, the level of care becomes more intensive as well.
Symptoms including the person forgetting details about their personal history, feeling moody and withdrawn, confusion about the present day and time, increased of wandering, trouble controlling their own bladder and bowels, personality and behavior shifts including being very suspicious about everyone and being paranoid in general, as well as needing help to get dressed appropriate to the season and situation.
Severe Stage – This is the last stage which is the most crucial stage marked with complete unresponsive behavior. Individuals lose their ability to respond or even control their movement. They may still say words and phrases but communicating about their problems becomes very difficult. Cognitive skills begin to worsen with time.
They also become vulnerable to infections and need assistance all the time for personal care and daily activities. They even show changes in their physical abilities like the ability to walk, sit, or swallow.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does not depend on one specific test. Doctors look into signs and symptoms by taking a medical history check. They also take a neurological function test (testing their reflexes, balance, and senses) and rule out other conditions before making a diagnosis.
Other types of assessments include blood or urine test, MRI scan of the brain, and screening for depression.
After ruling out every other condition, cognitive and memory tests are conducted to assess the person’s cognitive functions like the ability to remember and think.
Various cognitive tests are often done when the symptoms get a bit too severe and start affecting their daily living. Individuals suffering from this condition often have problems answering questions like:
- “What is your name?”
- “Which year were you born, and what year is it currently?”
- “Name the president.”
- “Count backward from 20 to 1.”
- “What is time?”
A gene known as the APOE-e4 has been associated with a higher risk for Alzheimer’s among people over the age of 55 years. Since genes play as a risk factor for developing this condition, genetic testing is often done to check for any indication.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, with 10 million new cases every year. Unfortunately, there still has not been a cure for it as the death of brain cells cannot be cured. There have been, however, therapeutic interventions used for Alzheimer’s treatment.
There have been no disease-modifying drugs available for Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the drugs that have been approved for symptomatic relief in the States are:
- Donepezil (Aricept)
- Tacrine (Cognex)
- Rivastigmine (Exelon)
- Memantine (Namenda)
Social support and emotional support become vital as the patient becomes more and more dependent.
Scientists are continually running trials, developing and testing several possible interventions like immunization therapy, cognitive training, physical activity, and treatments used for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes to prevent the growth of Alzheimer’s.
Support for Family and Caregivers
Alzheimer’s disease is a severe disease to combat, not only for the patient but also for the people around the patient, mostly the immediate family members and the caregiver. Caring for a person suffering from this acute disease can be very taxing, physically, emotionally, as well as financially.
Families and caregivers must be educated about the disease so that they know about the various stages of Alzheimer’s and about ways to deal with the patient. Excellent coping skills, a strong support network, and respite care are ways to help the caregivers to handle the stress of caring the victim.