Alzheimer's Disease: Symptoms, Treatment and Care
Alzheimer’s disease affects millions of people around the world. In the United States alone, an estimated 5.8 million adults over 65 have it. Eighty percent of those individuals are over the age of 75. Managing Alzheimer’s is something that families can work on together, exploring the right care options and creating a plan for the future. While there’s currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are things that family and caregivers can do to help slow its progression and ease the symptoms.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Aging is a normal part of life. While regular changes occur during the aging process, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t one of them. Alzheimer’s is an irreversible brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory and thinking skills. Eventually, it impedes the ability to perform even the simplest daily tasks. It’s the leading reason for dementia in older adults, and it’s also one of the top ten leading causes of death in the U.S.
Alois Alzheimer discovered the disease in 1906. Following the death of a woman with an “unusual illness,” he examined her brain tissue and found that she had what is now known as amyloid plaques and tangled groups of fibers.
What we now know is that Alzheimer’s disease slowly destroys the brain. The condition may begin years before symptoms ever appear. In reality, complex changes are taking place in the brain, causing irreversible damage.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
One of the first (and most common) symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. While everyone has occasional moments of forgetfulness, a person with Alzheimer’s may have trouble remembering recent events or conversations. As the disease continues to progress, memory impairments worsen. The person may:
- Misplace items or place them in unusual locations
- Repeat statements or questions several times
- Get lost in familiar environments
- Forget the names of friends and family members
- Have difficulty finding the words to describe objects or to express their thoughts
While memory loss is the most common symptom, it isn’t the only one. Other Alzheimer’s disease symptoms include:
Difficulty with problem-solving: A person living with Alzheimer’s may find it challenging to keep track of monthly bills or follow recipes. Tasks may take longer to complete because they have to concentrate more.
Losing track of dates: A person with Alzheimer’s may lose track of the passage of time, forgetting appointments or other important dates. They might forget how they got to a specific location.
Problems with decision-making: An individual might start making poor decisions when it comes to money or pay less attention to their personal grooming habits.
Developing problems with speaking or writing: A person with Alzheimer’s might find it difficult to join or maintain a conversation. They might pause in the middle of a sentence and be unable to continue.
Withdrawing from social activities: As a result of being unable to hold conversations, a person with Alzheimer’s might start avoiding social activities, engagements or even their favorite hobbies.
Changes in mood/personality: A person with Alzheimer’s might become easily confused, depressed, afraid or anxious, which could lead to rapid shifts in mood and changes in their personality. Someone who usually is welcoming and happy may become suspicious of everyone or everything around them.
Stages and Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. It often starts several years before symptoms appear, a time that’s often referred to as preclinical Alzheimer’s. A person won’t notice anything wrong at this stage, nor will anyone else around them. The disease itself is divided into three separate stages.
Mild, or early-stage, Alzheimer’s disease is the first stage. It’s when the earliest symptoms begin to appear, and most people receive their diagnosis. At this stage, a person may be driving, working and taking part in regular social activities. The difference is that they might notice more frequent lapses in memory, such as forgetting where they placed something, difficulty remembering a recent conversation or forgetting the names of people or items.
The second stage of Alzheimer’s lasts the longest of the three. It may last for several years. At this stage, the symptoms become more pronounced, and some assistance becomes necessary. Damage to the brain begins to affect thought, language, reasoning and sensory processing. Memory loss and confusion worsen, and the person might start forgetting things from their past, such as where they went to school or where they grew up. They might also experience shifts in behavior and sleep patterns.
In the final stage of Alzheimer’s, the symptoms are the most severe. The person loses their ability to respond to their environment. They can no longer carry on conversations or control their movements. While they might still speak, communicating their needs becomes very difficult. At this stage, assistance for all daily activities becomes necessary.
Causes and Risk Factors
Scientists don’t fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease. However, they do believe it occurs, for most individuals, as the result of a combination of factors. For those with Alzheimer’s, amyloid plaques begin building up in the brain. As they accumulate, they start to damage neurons and disrupt communication between them. Eventually, the damaged neurons die, which causes the brain to shrink.
Several factors increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. These risks include:
Increasing age: The most significant know risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease is increasing age. While it’s not a normal part of the aging process, the risk becomes more significant as a person advances in years.
A family history of Alzheimer’s: Genetic factors are complex, but a person’s risk is greater if they have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s disease.
Poor lifestyle or overall health: Some research shows that the same risk factors for heart disease may also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. These factors include:
- High blood pressure or high cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes (not well-managed)
- A lack of exercise
Having mild cognitive impairment (MCI): MCI refers to the decline of a person’s memory and thinking that is greater than expected for their age. While noticeable, it doesn’t affect their ability to function in work or social situations. People with MCI are at a much greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but it doesn’t always mean they will.
Experiencing head trauma in the past: A person who experienced severe head trauma in the past has a much greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
A lack of social engagement. Studies find that people who don’t participate in mentally and socially engaging activities regularly have a higher risk.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Doctors have many ways of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. They may:
- Ask the person (or a family member) about their overall health, past medical problems and difficulty with daily activities
- Perform memory tests
- Conduct standard medical tests, such as bloodwork or urinalysis, to rule out other problems
- Take images of the brain, such as a CT scan or MRI
These tests may be repeated later to monitor for changes in the person’s memory and cognitive functions. The earlier that a doctor diagnoses Alzheimer’s, the sooner the person can begin treatment, which may help slow the disease’s progression and preserve daily functioning longer.
There are a few treatments available for Alzheimer’s, although none of them will stop the disease’s progression. While researchers are working to find a cure, the current treatments focus on slowing the progression of the disease and preserving cognitive abilities.
Doctors may prescribe medication to help regulate the neurotransmitters in the brain, which can reduce symptoms and help with certain behavioral changes. There are a few FDA-approved medications on the market, some for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s and others for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s.
A doctor may also prescribe medications to help with specific behavioral symptoms, such as sleeplessness, anxiety or wandering. Again, the medications won’t cure the disease, but they will make the symptoms more bearable.
Care and Living Arrangements
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, a person will require more help. In some cases, a family member may take them in, or move into their house, to provide the necessary assistance. Caring for an individual with Alzheimer’s can be mentally and physically demanding. Fortunately, there are resources out there for caregivers to provide support.
If a family member can’t assist (or needs some assistance themselves), in-home care may be an option. The individual can still receive the help they need while remaining in the home they know and love.
A third option is to move to a community that provides Alzheimer’s care. In communities like The Atrium at Boca Raton, a person with Alzheimer’s can participate in activities and programs designed to enhance the lives and cognitive abilities of people with dementia. They can receive the assistance they need while building life-long friendships with team members and other members of the neighborhood.
Every program at The Atrium at Boca Raton incorporates the Valeo wellness philosophy. Residents improve their overall wellness through mental, physical, emotional and spiritual means. Residents in the memory care community can participate in custom-tailored programs that foster meaningful connections and interactions.