Alzheimer’s disease is a permanent, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory, thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out even the simplest daily routines and tasks.
In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s – but this varies significantly. However, experts suggest that more than 5.5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning – thinking, remembering, and reasoning – and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of daily living.
Mild forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. If you have trouble remembering someone’s name but remember it later, that’s not a genuine concern and does not require medical intervention.
However, if your memory problems are affecting your daily functions (forgetting how to execute tasks such as washing clothes), they could be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
While the number of symptoms you have and their severity varies, it’s crucial to identify the early signs. You need to ask yourself some tough questions:
Forgetting is the most common symptom. Do you easily forget any information you just learned? Do you lose track of important dates, names, and events? Do you forget big things even happened? Do you ask for the same information over and over? Do you rely heavily on memory aids like Post-it notes or reminders on your smartphone?
Trouble Planning and Problem Solving
Do you have trouble making plans and sticking to them? Is it tricky to follow a recipe, even one you’ve used many times? Is it hard to concentrate on detailed tasks, especially if they involve numbers? For example, can you keep track of your bills and balance your checkbook?
Daily Tasks Are a Challenge
Even familiar things can become hard. Do you have trouble driving to a location you go to often? Can you complete an ordinary task at work? Do you forget the rules of your favorite game?
Times and Places Are Confusing
Can you fully grasp something that’s not happening right now? Are you disoriented? Do you get lost easily? Do you forget where you are? Do you remember how you got there?
Changes in Vision
Is it harder to read the words on the page? Do you have trouble judging distance? Can you tell colors apart? This is important because it can affect your driving.
Words and Conversations Are Frustrating
Conversations can be a struggle. Do you avoid joining in? Are you able to follow along? Do you suddenly stop in the middle of a discussion because you don’t know what to say? Do you keep repeating yourself?
You Lose Things
Everyone misplaces things from time to time, but can you retrace your steps to find them again? Do you put things in unusual places, like your watch in the refrigerator? Do you accuse people of taking things?
Lapse in Judgment
Have you made poor decisions lately? Do you make mistakes with money, like giving it away when you normally wouldn’t?
Hygiene and Self Care
Are you showering as often? Do you take less care of yourself? When was the last time you changed your bedding?
Are you scaling back on projects at work? Are you less involved with your favorite hobbies? Do you lack motivation? Do you find yourself watching television or sleeping more than usual?
Do you get upset more easily? Do you feel depressed, scared, or anxious? Are you suspicious of people?
Having one or two of these symptoms occasionally in your life does not necessarily mean that you have Alzheimer’s Disease. Stress and other factors can be common causes for the symptoms above.
Diagnosis of this disease comes through a series of tests involving the frequency of the symptoms showing up or if it’s lingering for quite some time.
Scientists believe that, in the majority, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.
Although the causes of Alzheimer’s aren’t yet fully understood to this day, its effect on the brain is clear. This disease damages and kills brain cells. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease has fewer cells and fewer connections among surviving cells than a healthy brain.
Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s. This disease is not a part of normal aging, but the risk increases significantly by the mid-60s. The rate of dementia doubles every decade after age 60.
People with rare genetic changes linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s begin experiencing symptoms as early as their 30s.
Family History and Genetics
The risk of developing Alzheimer’s appears higher if a first-degree relative (your parent or sibling) has the disease. Scientists have identified mutations in three genes that virtually guarantee a person who inherits them will develop Alzheimer’s. But these mutations account for less than 5 percent of Alzheimer’s disease.
Most genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer’s among families remain largely unexplained. The most notable risk gene researchers have found so far is apolipoprotein e4 (APoE4), though not everyone with this gene develops Alzheimer’s disease. Other risk genes have been identified but not conclusively confirmed.
Many people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s disease. Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s tend to appear 10 to 20 years earlier in people with Down syndrome than in the general population. A gene in the extra chromosome that causes Down syndrome significantly increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men. However, this is in part because they also tend to live longer.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) have memory problems or other symptoms of cognitive decline that are worse than might be expected for their age but not severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia.
Those with MCI have an increased risk of later developing dementia. Taking action to develop a healthy lifestyle and strategies to compensate for memory loss at this stage may help delay or prevent the progression to dementia.
Past Head Trauma
People with severe head trauma seem to have a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Lifestyle and Heart Health
No lifestyle factor has been absolutely shown to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, some evidence suggests that the same factors that put you at risk of heart disease may also increase your chance of developing Alzheimer’s. Examples include:
These risk factors are also linked to vascular dementia, a type of dementia caused by damaged blood vessels in the brain.
Lifelong Learning and Social Engagement
Studies have found an association between lifelong involvement in mentally and socially stimulating activities and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Low education levels — less than a high school education — appear to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
Current Alzheimer’s medications can help with memory symptoms and other cognitive changes. Two types of drugs are currently used to treat cognitive symptoms:
Cholinesterase inhibitors – These drugs boost cell-to-cell communication levels by providing a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine) that is depleted in the brain by Alzheimer’s disease. The improvement is modest. Cholinesterase inhibitors can improve neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as agitation or depression, as well.
Commonly prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors include donepezil (Aricept), galantamine (Razadyne), and rivastigmine (Exelon). The main side effects of these drugs include diarrhea, nausea, loss of appetite, and sleep disturbances. In people with cardiac conduction disorders, serious side effects may include a slow heart rate and heart block.
Memantine (Namenda) – This drug works in another brain cell communication network and slows the progression of symptoms with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. It’s sometimes used in combination with a cholinesterase inhibitor. Side effects may include constipation, dizziness, and headache.
Sometimes other medications, such as antidepressants, help control the behavioral symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s. But you should only use some medications with great caution. For example, some common sleep medications – zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and others – may increase confusion and the risk of falls. Anti-anxiety medications, clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan), increase the risk of falls, confusion, and dizziness. Always check with your doctor before taking any new medications.
Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment
Adapting the living situation to the needs of a person with Alzheimer’s is an important part of any Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. For someone with Alzheimer’s, establishing and strengthening routine habits and minimizing memory-demanding tasks can make life much easier.
You can take these steps to support a person’s sense of well-being and continued ability to function:
Regular exercise is vital for everybody’s wellness plan – and those with Alzheimer’s are no exception. Daily walking can help improve mood and maintain the health of joints, muscles, and the heart.
Exercise can also promote restful sleep and prevent constipation. Make sure that the person with Alzheimer’s carries identification or wears a medical alert bracelet if she or he walks unaccompanied.
People with Alzheimer’s who develop trouble walking may still be able to use a stationary bike or participate in chair exercises. You can find exercise programs geared to older adults on TV or DVDs.
People with Alzheimer’s may forget to eat, lose interest in preparing meals, or not eat a healthy combination of foods. They may also forget to drink enough, leading to dehydration and constipation.
Make Eating Easy
Aim for high-calorie, healthy shakes and smoothies. You can supplement milkshakes with protein powders (available at grocery stores, drugstores, and discount retailers) or use your blender to make smoothies featuring your favorite ingredients.
Drink water, juice, and other healthy beverages. Try to ensure that a person with Alzheimer’s drinks at least several full glasses of liquids every day. Avoid beverages with caffeine, which can increase restlessness, interfere with sleep and trigger a frequent need to urinate.
Certain nutritional supplements are marketed as “medical foods” specifically to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve products marketed as medical foods. Despite marketing claims, no definitive data shows that these supplements are beneficial or safe.
Dr. Helton and his team in Murfreesboro, TN, understand how damaging Alzheimer’s Disease can be for the patient and family. We are dedicated to helping our patients reduce their symptoms through a holistic and empathetic approach.
Our Treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease extends beyond drug prescriptions. Highland Family Medicine physicians give clear and implementable advice to both the Alzheimer’s Disease patient and family, from proper nutrition and lifestyle changes to house and routine modifications. The goal is to create a safe and supportive environment that focuses on still living a healthy, happy life.
Highland Family Medicine and its doctors, Dr. Helton, Dr. Housden, and Dr. Hardin, have been serving and treating the community of Murfreesboro, TN, and surrounding areas for over two decades.
Collectively, they have treated more than 20,000 patients. Highland Family Medicine specializes in comprehensive health care for people of all ages, treating most ailments and non-emergencies.
Please don’t hesitate to call the Highland Family Medicine doctor’s office. Dr. Helton, Dr. Housden, and Dr. Hardin are professionals and ready to serve.