Do you know someone who developed Alzheimer’s disease? Perhaps it was a family member, a friend, or even a neighbor. If you’ve been witness to this disease, you know the heartache it can result in – both for those diagnosed and those close to them. November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness month. While scientists are learning more about Alzheimer’s every day, there is still much to be uncovered – both in its causes and treatment. Read on to learn more about this deadly disease.Alzheimer’s Overview
Alzheimer’s is a progressive and fatal brain disease that affects over 5 million Americans. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the most common form of dementia. The disease destroys brain cells which cause the patient to lose memory, have trouble thinking, and have trouble maintaining normal daily activities. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time and is eventually fatal. While it is normal to lose some memory with age, serious memory loss and confusion could be a warning sign that brain cell functions are failing and should be examined immediately by a medical professional. Alzheimer’s is more common in adults over the age of 65, although early onset Alzheimer’s can occur at any age prior to 65.The Brain and Alzheimer’s
Everyone’s brain has over 100 million nerve cells that communicate to each other, forming networks and pathways in the brain. Each nerve cell has a special job such as thinking, learning, remembering, seeing, hearing, smell and some help our muscles to move. Each brain cell operates like its own factory, taking in supplies from the body, generating energy for the production of certain activities in the body, the construction of important body cells and parts and the elimination of garbage in the body system. The extensive coordination effort among all brain cells requires energy, fuel and oxygen to function properly.
When a patient has Alzheimer’s, some of their factories stop working well and some even shut down. Researchers are still trying to understand the causes of these shut-downs, but just like an actual factory there are backups in the production lines and breakage of equipment. As the damage spreads through the brain, some cells will eventually die.
The disease is named after D. Alois Alzheimer and after his death, researchers found 2 different abnormal structures in his brain; plaques and tangles. Plaques describe a build up between nerve cells, similar to the concept of plaque formation on your teeth. Tangles are what form inside of dying brain cells. As each person ages, they will form some small quantities of both plaques and tangles. In an Alzheimer’s patient, they tend to form at a higher rate and in a predictable pattern, beginning in the memory and learning areas of the brain before they spread out and across the other brain regions. While it is known that these brain developments are associated with an Alzheimer’s patient, scientists are still unclear about the role that these play in the disease.Potential Signs of Alzheimer’s
The Alzheimer's Association has developed the following list of warning signs that include common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. These symptoms can include memory loss, difficulty performing familiar daily tasks, problems with language, misplacing things, loss of initiative and disorientation. Individuals who exhibit several of these symptoms should see a physician for a complete evaluation.Alzheimer’s Risk Factors
The primary risk factor of Alzheimer’s is age and since the American population is aging, there is a higher prevalence of adults who have the disease. There are also some genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s such as some inherited gene mutations. Gene mutations occur in almost 50% of the adults who develop early onset Alzheimer’s. There is also a genetic risk in adults that are diagnosed with later stage Alzheimer’s, a gene that is located on the 19th chromosome. Scientists are still working on ways to identify this risk in people.
There are some other health related risks for the development of Alzheimer’s such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes and high cholesterol. While each of these risk factors has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, they are in no way suggesting that someone will develop the disease in their lifetime if they have one or more risk factors.Alzheimer’s Treatment Options
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. There are several prescription drugs available to help with some of the symptoms of the disease and are available from your physician. Most treatment options are targeted at slowing the progression of the disease, to manage problems with confusion or agitation, to modify the person’s home environment and to assist the person’s family and caregivers.
There are some promising lifestyle changes that have helped Alzheimer’s patients with their symptoms. Relaxation techniques and in particular pet therapy are helpful for patients.
Several antioxidant supplements, Ginkgo Biloba and Vitamin E have shown promise with the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Folate (B9) has also proven effective with brain function in patients.
The diagnosis is not promising for patients with Alzheimer’s, but understanding the disease and using all available treatment options can prove effective in slowing the progression of the disease and allowing for a higher quality of life.Resources: