Dementia, a decline in memory and thinking skills, is a significant medical concern as you age or watch someone you love age. It's estimated that up to 8 percent of all adults over age 65 may have some form of dementia. Researchers say that this percentage doubles every five years after 65. Nearly 50 million people worldwide are living with some type of dementia.
What's the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's disease?
Dementia is an umbrella term for symptoms that include memory problems and impaired thinking. Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that affects parts of the brain controlling memory, thought and language. Alzheimer's disease is the most often diagnosed form of dementia.
What is Alzheimer's disease?
In 1906, German pathologist and psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer described a patient who had suffered from memory loss and exhibited paranoia and other psychological changes. He noted in her autopsy that the brain was significantly smaller than normal and there were missing microscopic changes in the appearance of the nerve cells.
Since then, the number of people diagnosed with this specific type of dementia has increased dramatically. Alzheimer's disease is characterized by worsening memory loss and other cognitive disabilities that disrupt everyday life. Symptoms gradually worsen across a span of several years.
An estimated 5.5 million Americans 65 and older are living with Alzheimer's disease, and another 200,000 Americans younger than 65 have been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Women make up almost two-thirds of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
What are the stages of Alzheimer's?
There are three stages of Alzheimer's:
- In the early stage, you may function independently. You may still work, drive and maintain social connections. But you may notice memory lapses, and you may not be able to retrieve familiar words as easily or remember where you placed everyday objects. You may begin to feel unsure about a familiar route home in your car.
- The middle stage typically lasts the longest and may continue for a number of years. As the disease advances, you'll require a more intensive level of care.
- In the final stage of this disease, you may still be able to speak, but communicating important information becomes difficult. As memory and cognitive skills fade, you may need extensive help with daily activities.
What are the primary symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?
In the early stage, you may experience:
- Difficulty remembering the names of new people.
- Challenges performing tasks at work.
- Increasing difficulty with planning and organizing.
- Forgetting something you've just read.
In the middle stage, you and others may notice:
- Forgetfulness about important personal events and personal history.
- Inability to remember your own address or telephone number.
- Confusion about what day it is.
- Inability or difficulty selecting clothing appropriate for the season or occasion.
- Increased risk of getting lost when driving.
- Personality changes.
- Compulsive behavior.
- Getting days and nights mixed up with sleeping habits.
In the final stage, you may:
- Need 24/7 help with daily activities, including personal care.
- Lose awareness of recent experiences and your surroundings.
- No longer be able to walk, sit, and eventually, swallow.
- Have increasing difficulty communicating.
- Contract infections, especially pneumonia.
How is Alzheimer's disease diagnosed?
Your HonorHealth neurologist diagnoses Alzheimer's disease by taking a careful history and doing a mental status examination. MRIs and blood tests are used to primarily exclude other correctable forms of dementia.
Causes and risk factors for Alzheimer's disease
Researchers are still working to identify the cause or causes of Alzheimer's disease. Scientists have focused their attention on understanding protein build-up in the brain:
- Formation of amyloid plaques, which are abnormal clusters of chemically tacky proteins that build up between nerve cells.
- Tangles: Dead and dying nerve cells contain tangles, which are twisted strands of a protein called tau.
Research suggests that the plaques and tangles cause the deterioration of neurons (nerve cells) and synapses, the connecting tissue between neurons that allows information to be passed from neuron to neuron. These changes result in significant decline in the temporal and parietal lobes and parts of the frontal cortex in the brain.
Risk factors for developing Alzheimer's include increasing age, having a close family member with the disease and many of the same risk factors that cause heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.
Treatment options for Alzheimer's disease
While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, your neurologist will work with you and your family to help you manage daily living with the disease. Your neurologist may prescribe a medication that may help slow symptoms of the condition:
- One type of medication is a cholinesterase inhibitor. The most commonly used medication in this class is donepezil. These medications can help to prevent progression of memory loss and difficulty in thinking and reasoning associated with Alzheimer's disease.
- Another medication, memantine, helps patients maintain some of their functions for a longer period of time.