Alzheimer’s Disease: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
With rapid increases in the number of people over 60 years old, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is becoming more and more popular. In 2012, the Alzheimer’s Association estimated that 5.4 million Americans had been suffering from the condition. According to recent researches, Alzheimer’s disease is ranked as the third leading cause of death in the US, only behind heart disease and cancer.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that seriously affects the patient’s brain, particularly their memory, language skills and thinking ability. The disease usually begins with mild dementia, and then goes slowly through various stages. Eventually, in the final stage, serious brain damage may prevent patients from performing even the simplest daily activities.
Alzheimer’s disease was first discovered by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906. At that time, Dr. Alzheimer had a female patient who exhibited symptoms like loss of memory, difficulty in speaking, and uncontrollable behavior. After her death, he observed her brain and found some abnormal clumps and tangled fibers.
Depending on each person, the disease may progress quickly or slowly. On average, those who suffer from Alzheimer’s can only live for 8-10 more years. With early diagnosis and proper treatment, however, the patient’s life expectancy can be expanded.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
Currently, scientists have not yet identified the causes of Alzheimer’s. The disease is generally associated with complex changes in the brain that happen over decades. Due to these changes, the brain cells responsible for memory and information processing gradually weaken and die. Additionally, the appearance of abnormal proteins may be to blame for the creation of plaques around and inside brain cells, which interfere with information transmission.
Generally, Alzheimer’s disease causes are said to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.
Who is at risk of Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is commonly found among older people. In most cases, patients start to exhibit symptoms around their mid-60s. In addition, those with congenital brain disorders or trauma are also susceptible to the disease.
What increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease?
Many factors can increase the risk of catching the disease, including:
- Old age;
- Family history;
- Mild cognitive impairment;
- Head injury;
- Unhealthy lifestyles (i.e: lack of physical exercises, frequent smoking, low consumption of fruits and vegetables);
- Cardiovascular diseases;
- Hypertension, increased blood cholesterol, high levels of homocysteine;
- Low levels of formal education, lack of mentally challenging activities (reading, playing games, playing musical instruments) and little social reaction.
Signs & Symptoms
What are the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s vary between different development phases. Overall, the disease has 4 main stages:
- Early-onset. Initial symptoms include frequent forgetfulness (e.g: forgetting names; having difficulty finding things…), a decline in cognitive abilities, vision issues, impaired reasoning capability, etc.
- Mild. As the disease progresses, patients may experience loss of memory and abnormal thinking. This can be observed from their tendency to go wandering and get lost, repeat a question over and over, tell a similar story all the time, and their inability to remember things.
- Moderate. In this phase, the brain area responsible for language control and conscious thought is seriously affected. As a result, patients may lose the ability to perform multi-step tasks and learn new things. Additional symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, and impulsive behavior.
- Severe. At the final stage, plaques and tangles develop quickly throughout the brain. As the patient’s body begins to shut down, he/she has to lie in bed all the time, and need complete care from other people.
When should I contact a doctor?
If you/ your relatives display any of the above signs & symptoms, you should consult the doctor immediately. As each person’s case is different, talking to an experienced doctor is essential to determine the most effective treatment.
Diagnosis & Treatment
How to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be carried out via examining the patient’s general health, medical history, and intellect. The doctor will also need to test your ability to reason, maintain coordination and balance, and sensation.
The most common methods to diagnose Alzheimer’s include:
- Asking the patients about their overall health, prescription and over-the-counter medicines, diet.
- Studying the patient’s past medical problems.
- Examining changes in behavior and personality.
- Assessing the patient’s intellect, memory, attention and problem-solving skills.
- Brain scans like computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) rule out other causes of dementia (e.g: hypothyroidism, vitamin B12 deficiency).
- Blood and urine tests may also be performed to figure out other possible causes.
Alzheimer’s disease treatment
As of now, there is no complete cure for Alzheimer’s. The focus of most medical treatment is to reduce the symptoms and contain the disease’s progress.
Currently, the available treatment for Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Medications. To deal with the symptoms, your doctors may prescribe some medications to slow down the disease’s progress, including cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. In addition, patients may take sedatives to deal with anxiety, depression, agitation, and other behavioral issues.
- Assistance. As the condition causes serious damage to one’s cognitive ability, it is advisable that those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease do not change their living environment unless absolutely necessary. To assist patients in their daily activities, their relatives are advised to put important directions in print around the house.
- Regenerative medicine. With advances in modern healthcare, however, new types of treatment have emerged and offered new hope for Alzheimer’s patients. One deserves special mention is stem cell therapy. According to researchers, stem cells can be used to aid in replacing dying brain cells and improving brain functions. This may help control the disease’s symptoms and improve patients’ life quality.
Alzheimer’s disease prevention
How can I prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
Due to the condition’s complexity, it is best to combine several different measures to prevent it. Some of these measures include:
- Increasing physical activities. Although scientists are still somehow skeptical about the relationship between physical activities and Alzheimer’s disease, exercising is still recommended due to its numerous beneficial benefits. According to studies, people who exercise frequently are less at risk of cognitive issues, which is often associated with fewer brain and tangles, as well as better performance on cognitive tests.
- Controlling blood pressure. Studies have shown a connection between high blood sugar and dementia. Generally, high blood pressure, in combination with cerebrovascular risk factors such as diabetes and smoking, is said to increase the risk of dementia.
- Participating in cognitive training. Cognitive training may help enhance one’s speed and accuracy in processing information and responding to certain factors.
How can I limit the disease’s progress?
For those who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they are advised to practice the following habits in order to limit the disease’s progress:
- Find support and care from other people/ relatives;
- Simplify your daily routine and living space;
- Avoid negative thoughts, and retain a positive attitude in every social, physical and mental activity.
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