Alzheimer's is one of the most well known, but least understood diseases related to aging. What scientists know is that Alzheimer's disease of the brain that affects upwards of 5 million adults in the U.S. It is affected by many different factors, increasing age being the most highly correlative. The number of people with Alzheimer's disease doubles every five years beyond the age of 65, and about one third of all people age 85 and older have Alzheimer's.
What Is Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior, but only affects certain portions of the adult population. It is a form of dementia, which is a general medical term for the loss of memory and cognitive capabilities that produce a series hindrance to daily life. Alzheimer’s accounts for roughly 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia.
Types of Dementia
Although Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, there are other types that affect the elderly population. The most common forms are:
Vascular Dementia is a gradual decline in cognitive skills triggered by causes that hinder and reduce blood flow to the brain, which deprives brain cells of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly. These blocks can sometimes occur following strokes that block major brain blood vessels. It is widely considered the second most common form of dementia following Alzheimer's.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB)
Dementia with Lewy bodies is a another type of dementia that leads to declines in cognitive function, reasoning and reduces independent function of brain cells due to abnormal microscopic deposits, known as Lewy Bodies, that damage brain cells. This form of dementia is typically signaled early on with sleep-disturbances, hallucinations, and balance problems.
Parkinson’s disease is a mental impairment in cognition and reasoning. As changes in the brain gradually spread, they often begin to affect three primary mental functions, such as memory and the ability to pay attention, reasoning capabilities and planning. This can eventually result in slowness, rigidity, tremors, and difficulty holding objects.
Huntington’s disease is another progressive brain disorder that is triggered by the presence of a single defective gene in the chromosome 4. It causes change to occur in the centralized area of the brain that affects thinking, emotional well-being, and hinders movement. Like many forms of dementia, symptoms will worsen over time.
Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease
Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, or CJD as it is sometimes known, is the most common human form of a group of rare, fatal brain disorders known as prion diseases that affects people and some animals. A misaligned protein known as a prion begins to destroy cells in the brain, resulting in damage that leads to severe mood changes, involuntary muscle movements, confusion, a rapid decline in thinking and reasoning as well as difficulty with physical movement
Other Types Include
- Mixed Dementia
- Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
- Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
- Down Syndrome Dementia
- Korsakoff Syndrome
- Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA)
How Does Alzheimer’s Disease Work?
Before symptoms begin to arrive, there are changes that take place in the brain on a microscopic level. The brain has over 100 billion neurons connecting to one another. Each cluster of cells is responsible for different cognitive functions. For example, some specialize in thinking, learning, memory, sight, hearing, smelling, and muscle movement. Scientists believe that Alzheimer's works by preventing parts of these neurons from functioning correctly. Think of it like a factory that is continually running but gradually wears down over time and in some cases completely breaks down. As some factories (neurons) break down, this affects the functioning of related factories, and the disease spreads.
Scientists attribute this break down to the buildup of plaques and tangles between cells, which are made up of protein fragments and twisted protein fibers. Although all of us develop these buildups, people with Alzheimers and related forms of dementia develop these in greater quantities and in predictable patterns. This blockage results in the death and spread of nerve cells resulting in memory failure, personality changes, and other symptoms.
What Causes Alzheimer's?
It is unknown exactly why some people are more prone to the buildup of plaques and tangles, but there are a number of risk factors that we know correlate.
Older age is the greatest known risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease. We know that most individuals with the disease are those that are sixty five and older. In fact, one in nine people belonging this age cohort and more than one third of people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer's.
The next greatest predictor is whether the disease is present in your family history. Those with relatives that have Alzheimers are most at risk for developing the disease later on in life. When examining genes, it’s important to look at risk genes and deterministic genes. Several risk genes include APOE-e4, which if identified is the most gene with the strongest impact for determining alzheimers risk. Those who inherit one or more copies of this gene are at an increased risk for developing the disease.
Unsurprisingly, the next strongest link for the disease is related to head injuries. Anything that could seriously affect the brain, usually sudden blunt trauma, can cause this. However, scientists also believe that keeping the brain healthy through diet, exercise, sociability, and avoiding tobacco and excess alcohol can also help prevent Alzheimers from developing or worsening.
The most surefire way of accurately diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease is to consult a medical professional. There is no specialty for diagnosing this disease, but is recommended to seek out specialists in the field of the mind, such as Neurologists, Psychiatrists, or Psychologists. These professionals will ask for a history of medical conditions and to list any symptoms the patient suspects may be correlated. From there they will conduct an in-person analysis to formulate a diagnosis. The most common signs to look for are:
- Memory Loss That Interrupts Daily Life
- Challenges With Reasoning and Problem Solving
- Confusion With Time and Place
- Problems Speaking Coherently
- Misplacing Items Often
- Sudden Changes in Mood or Personality
- Poor Judgement
With early detection, you can seek out treatment options, such as finding an assisted living facility that offers memory care. You can also explore other treatment options that may provide some relief of symptoms. In order to continue living independently, you may also want to consider an independent living facility or a home care worker.