According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Alzheimer’s Disease is now the most common form of dementia among older persons. Dementia is marked by serious decline of one’s cognitive abilities — that is, the ability to think clearly, remember information, and engage in critical reasoning. More than the occasional “slip of the brain” that all of us experience from time to time (like forgetting where we placed our house keys or when a friend’s anniversary is coming up), Alzheimer’s Disease involves significant damage to the brain itself.
As the NIA explains, the brains of persons with Alzheimer’s Disease will exhibit abnormal tissue clumps (known as amyloid plaques) and/or tangled bundles of fibers (known as neurofibrillary tangles). A third main characteristic of the disease is the loss of connection between neurons, or nerve cells, in the brain.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that as many as 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. More than half of all Americans know, or know of, someone with Alzheimer’s. The disease is believed to affect some 35 million people worldwide. According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, worldwide deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias more than tripled between 1990 and 2010. This may not be altogether surprising, as nations advance and more and more people live longer lives.
Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease usually occurs after age 60, and risk increases with age. However, Alzheimer’s and other dementias are not a natural or inevitable part of aging. They are diseases. And, as such, they may be clinically diagnosed.
Science has not yet identified a single clear “cause” for these conditions. Rather, they are likely the result of multiple and sometimes overlapping variables, such as genetic factors / family history, diet, and environment. Researchers are seeking to understand other possible factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, chronic alcoholism, vitamin B12 deficiency, and lack of social engagement or mentally stimulating activity.
Alzheimer’s Disease is classified according to three stages: mild, moderate, and severe.
Difficulty performing otherwise familiar tasks, such as preparing a meal, counting out currency or using a household appliance can be early signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. Mood or personality changes might also begin to appear in milder stages of the disease.
Problems using language and recognizing family and friends may be a sign of Alzheimer’s Disease progression. Although it is normal to sometimes forget a name or to struggle to find the right word, people with Alzheimer’s Disease may become hard to understand. They might even substitute unusual words or phrases for forgotten ones. Loss of good judgment may also be a warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease: for example, wearing inappropriate clothing (e.g., pajamas outside in winter). Mood and personality changes may become more extreme.
As the disease becomes more severe, a senior might become disoriented with regard to time and place. It is normal to sometimes lose track of time or to become lost, but a person with severe Alzheimer’s can forget what year it is and can become lost on familiar streets and not be able to find his or her way home. It is also normal to misplace things occasionally; but putting things in unusual places — like a hair brush in the refrigerator or a bracelet in the sugar bowl — are warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to resources provided by the Alzheimer’s Association and other nonprofit groups, a senior’s primary care provider can answer concerns about Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. A doctor may administer a brief memory screening test or physical and neurological examinations to assess a senior’s health. Definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease can only be made after death, through an autopsy of the brain. Nevertheless, one’s physician might recommend brain imaging, such as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to rule out a stroke or tumor and otherwise observe any changes in the brain.
There is no cure-all for Alzheimer’s Disease. Certain medications may help patients by regulating the brain’s neurotransmitters – the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons. Researchers are also studying how lifestyle habits that contribute to overall health – i.e., a nutritious, low fat diet; regular exercise; social connectivity, and intellectual engagement – may also help prevent or delay the onset of dementia.
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