Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging. It is an irreversible degeneration of the brain that causes disruptions in memory, cognition, personality, and other functions. While there is currently no known cure, research continues on animals and humans to find new treatments for delaying and coping with the disease, in the hopes of someday finding a cure.
Here is some information to help you better understand the disease, what research and treatments are available today, what you can do to stay healthy, and if you are a caregiver, what helping someone with Alzheimer’s means.
Facts and Statistics
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to communicate effectively and respond to their environment. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.
According to the BrightFocus Foundation, an American develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds. By mid-century, someone in America will develop the disease every 33 seconds. It is estimated that nearly 500,000 new cases of Alzheimer’s disease will be diagnosed this year. Worldwide, 46.8 million people are believed to be living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
A Brain with Alzheimer’s
Although the causes of Alzheimer’s aren’t yet fully understood, its effect on the brain is clear: Alzheimer’s disease damages and kills brain cells. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease has many fewer cells and many fewer connections among surviving cells than does a healthy brain.
As more and more brain cells die, Alzheimer’s leads to significant brain shrinkage. When doctors examine Alzheimer’s brain tissue under the microscope, they see two types of abnormalities that are considered hallmarks of the disease:
- Plaques. These clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid may damage and destroy brain cells in several ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication. Although the ultimate cause of brain-cell death in Alzheimer’s isn’t known, the collection of beta-amyloid on the outside of brain cells is a prime suspect.
- Tangles. Brain cells depend on an internal support and transport system to carry nutrients and other essential materials throughout their long extensions. This system requires the normal structure and functioning of a protein called tau. In Alzheimer’s, threads of tau protein twist into abnormal tangles inside brain cells, leading to failure of the transport system. New evidence in the past two years points to the malfunction–or tangling–of tau as possibly being the initial cause of neuronal death, not plaque itself. Scientists think this may explain why some people with plaque buildup in their brains don’t have dementia.
Causes and Research
Scientists believe causes of Alzheimer’s include genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time. According to the Mayo Clinic, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s appears to be somewhat higher if a first-degree relative — your parent or sibling — has the disease. Scientists have identified rare changes (mutations) in three genes that virtually guarantee a person who inherits them will develop Alzheimer’s, but these mutations account for less than five percent of Alzheimer’s disease.
Recent research has piqued scientists’ interest in the possible link between inflammation and Alzheimer’s. Our brains have a “security guard” system of cells called microglia that are always present, lying inactive, ready to fight any potential threats. When they sense a threat, they attack and kill it. With Alzheimer’s, however, amyloid plaques build up in the brain that are resistant to the attacks. The result is the plaques remain, the microglia keep attacking, and the brain responds by releasing inflammatory chemicals called cytokines and damaging chemicals, such as peroxide.
Animal studies have linked immune reactions to neurodegeneration and have even shown that virally-induced inflammation of the brain leads to Alzheimer’s-like changes. In humans, severe head injury is known to be followed by brain inflammation, and this may explain why head trauma increases the risk later for Alzheimer’s. The complex chemistry of this process is being studied in laboratories around the world.
Scientific research has shown that cognitive improvements can be achieved by blocking the inflammatory proteins that microglia release when activated. Identifying valid and affordable biomarkers of brain inflammation is an important part of pushing research forward. Specifically, this research will further our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease.
At first, increasing forgetfulness or mild confusion may be the only symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that you notice. But over time, the disease robs you of more of your memory, especially recent memories. The rate at which symptoms worsen varies from person to person.
If you have Alzheimer’s, you may be the first to notice that you’re having unusual difficulty remembering things and organizing your thoughts. Or you may not recognize that anything is wrong, even when changes are noticeable to your family members, close friends or co-workers.
Brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease lead to growing trouble with:
memory, thinking and reasoning, making judgements and decisions, planning and performing familiar tasks, and changes in personality and behavior.
Although current Alzheimer’s treatments cannot stop Alzheimer’s from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Today, there is a worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, and prevent it from developing.
In addition to the current medical support and new treatments being researched, doctors and Alzheimer’s experts continue to advise a balance of social, mental and physical stimulation in order to attain and maintain a healthy life. Even after you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, you should continue pleasurable activities and modify them as needed. Regular exercise and a nutritious diet are also important and can help you cope better with the impact of this disorder.
By exercising regularly and making healthy food choices, you are giving your body and brain the best opportunity to stay healthy long into your golden years. To keep your mind active, and help prevent cognitive decline, you can try:
- Reading books, magazines, and newspapers
- Writing and corresponding through mail and email
- Reading progressively more challenging books
- Learning a musical instrument
- Studying a new language
- Creating art
- Playing board and card games, chess, crossword puzzles, brain teasers, word games, and video games
- Visiting museums
- Attending plays
- Finding creative new ways to carry out routines
Most of these activities have the added benefit of maintaining and increasing social contact with friends and family.
Regular physical activity helps increase blood circulation in the brain, which can help improve your overall emotional and mental well-being. Of course it also helps you maintain weight and flexibility and ward off a host of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more. Since physical distress or disease can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being, it makes sense to exercise. A combination of weekly aerobic exercise, strength training, and activity to increase flexibility is recommended. You should discuss exercise plans with your healthcare provider, so that an appropriate exercise program can be tailored for your specific needs.
Eating a diet that is high in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and low in sugar and fat can reduce the incidence of many chronic diseases, including those that can produce chronic inflammation, a link to Alzheimer’s.
Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s can have high physical, emotional, and financial costs. The demands of day-to-day care, changes in family roles, and decisions about placement in a care center can be difficult. There are several evidence-based approaches and programs that can help, and researchers are continuing to look for new and better ways to support caregivers.
Becoming well-informed about the disease is one important strategy. Look online or ask your doctors about programs that teach families about the various stages of Alzheimer’s and about ways to deal with difficult behaviors and other caregiving challenges. Developing good coping skills (such as staying physically active to provide you with physical and emotional release), forming a strong support network, and finding respite care are other ways to help you handle the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.
Some caregivers have found that joining a support group is a critical lifeline. These support groups allow caregivers to find respite care, express concerns, share experiences, get tips, and receive emotional comfort. Many organizations sponsor in-person and online support groups, including groups for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and their families. The National Institute on Aging’s Alzheimer’s page has numerous free, downloadable information sheets and e-books as well as links to other helpful sites.
Finding out that you or your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease is a life-changing event. By understanding the disease, seeking the proper care and support, and doing your best to stay physically and emotionally healthy, you can help delay or reduce symptoms and live a fulfilling life.
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