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Alzheimer's Disease

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia. It affects a person's thinking, memory, and behavior and gets worse as time goes on.

It's the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the most common type of dementia.

Alzheimer's accounts for about 60% to 80% of all dementia cases.

Most people who have Alzheimer's are over 65, but it's not a normal part of aging.

Types of Alzheimer's disease

There are two distinct types of Alzheimer's disease: early-onset and late-onset.

Early-onset Alzheimer's disease

Early-onset Alzheimer's:

  • Signs often appear in a person's mid-30s to mid-60s.
  • Is a rare form of the disease, mostly caused by a gene passed from parent to child.
  • Progresses faster than the late-onset form of the disease.

Late-onset Alzheimer's disease

  • Most people with Alzheimer's have this form of the disease.
  • Signs often appear in a person's mid-60s or later.
  • Doctors aren't always sure what causes this type.

Late-onset Alzheimer's disease stages

There are three basic stages of late-onset Alzheimer's. But, the disease doesn't always progress in a predictable way. Each person may experience different symptoms.

Early-stage (mild)

A person in the early stages of Alzheimer's can mostly still function on their own.

During early-stage Alzheimer's, they may:

  • Have trouble remembering names or words.
  • Have problems doing routine tasks.
  • Forget what they just read.
  • Lose or misplace objects.
  • Have trouble managing time.
  • Get lost in a familiar place.

Middle-stage (moderate)

The middle stage of Alzheimer's can last for years.

The symptoms become more noticeable and include:

  • Getting easily frustrated or angry.
  • Changes in personality.
  • Forgetting events or things that happened in the past.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Forgetting basic information like their address.
  • Incontinence.
  • Changes in sleep patterns.
  • Compulsive behavior like pacing, tapping, or hand-wringing.

Late-stage (severe)

In the final stage of Alzheimer's, most people need round-the-clock care.

They may:

  • Lose the ability to communicate.
  • Lose mobility.
  • Be susceptible to urinary tract and respiratory infections.
  • Lose awareness of their surroundings.
  • Not recognize loved ones.

What causes Alzheimer's disease?

Experts believe that a build-up of proteins around the brain causes Alzheimer's. These proteins form plaques around brain cells.

This process begins many years before symptoms appear.

It's unclear why some people get Alzheimer's and some don't. It may be a mix of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.

Alzheimer's disease risk factors and complications

Doctors don't understand everything about what causes Alzheimer's.

But there are some risk factors that make it more likely you'll get it, such as:

  • Being over 65.
  • A family history of Alzheimer's.
  • Having Down syndrome.
  • Head injuries.
  • Smoking.
  • Obesity.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Depression.
  • Inactive lifestyle.

Alzheimer's disease prevention

The best way to lower your risk of Alzheimer's is to lead a healthy, active lifestyle.

  • Stay connected socially.
  • Eat a well-balanced, heart-healthy diet.
  • Get exercise several times a week.
  • Avoid head injuries by wearing a seat belt and helmet.
  • Stay mentally active.
  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Take up a challenging new hobby.

Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms and Diagnosis

Is losing your keys a sign of Alzheimer's disease? What about wandering through the grocery store and forgetting what you need?

Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between normal forgetfulness and a sign of something more serious.

Here are some signs of early-stage Alzheimer's:

  • Forgetting important dates and events.
  • Having trouble following directions.
  • Problems doing routine tasks (like using the microwave).
  • Losing track of the day of the week or season of the year.
  • Vision problems that lead to balance issues or problems driving.
  • Trouble following a conversation.
  • Struggling to come up with the right word.
  • Putting things in odd places (the keys in the freezer, for instance).
  • Poor judgment.
  • Poor hygiene.
  • Withdrawing from social activities.
  • Personality changes.
  • Becoming quickly agitated.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's

Diagnosing Alzheimer's is a challenge. Sometimes various dementia symptoms overlap.

When someone has symptoms of more than one kind of brain disease, doctors call it “mixed dementia."

To diagnose Alzheimer's, doctors may ask family members to weigh in on changes to a loved one's behavior.

Doctors will take a complete medical history that may include:

  • Mental status tests.
  • A physical exam.
  • Diagnostic tests.
  • Brain imaging.

Alzheimer's Disease Treatment

Right now, there is no cure for Alzheimer's. But doctors can treat symptoms and sometimes slow the progression of the disease.

Alzheimer's disease medicine

Talking with your doctor is the first step in learning if medicine is the right treatment for you. While it may be effective, no drug at this time can reverse the damage that has already occurred.

Types of medication that a doctor may prescribe for someone living with Alzheimer's include:

  • Drugs that slow the progression of the disease. The FDA-approved drug Aducanumab targets plaque in the brain. Removing the plaque slows the rate of mental decline in people with Alzheimer's disease.
  • Drugs that treat cognitive symptoms. Cholinesterase inhibitors support communication between nerve cells in the brain. They may help manage the symptoms of Alzheimer's.
  • Drugs that treat other symptoms of Alzheimer's. Other medications might relieve anxiety, agitation, or sleep problems.

Treating behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

People with Alzheimer's have symptoms that can include anxiety and restlessness.

They may not be able to communicate well. It's up to caregivers to learn their physical and emotional needs.

Techniques that may help are to:

  • Make eye contact.
  • Call your loved one by name.
  • Not argue or point out that their memories aren't correct.
  • Maintain a calm setting.
  • Use gentle touch instead of verbal communication.
  • Stick to a routine.
  • Hold their hand while you talk.
  • Redirect their attention if need be.
  • Be patient and flexible.
  • Don't take negative behavior personally.

Alzheimer's prognosis and survival rate

There's no cure for Alzheimer's. Usually, people live about 4 to 8 years after diagnosis. But there are many factors, and sometimes people with Alzheimer's can live as long as 20 years.

The hope for a cure lies in Alzheimer's disease research.

Researchers are studying how various drugs may get to the root cause of Alzheimer's, not just slow the progress of the disease. Some drugs used to treat other diseases and conditions, like cancer and high blood pressure, show promise in fighting Alzheimer's.

Current research also suggests that your lifestyle plays a part in whether or not you'll get Alzheimer's. Exercise and a heart-healthy diet may delay or help prevent the onset of the disease.