Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of cognitive impairment or dementia among older people. People suffering from Alzheimer’s can have problems with their memory, thinking and behaviour. The symptoms of the diseases worsen as the disease progresses and can even interfere with your daily routine.
It is a brain disorder in which the brain cells degenerate and die, causing a steady decline in memory and mental function. A person affected with the disease can have difficulties in remembering things that happened recently or names of the people they know. In the later stages of the disease, the person may become anxious or aggressive, and even wander away from home. It primarily begins after the age of 50, but it can also affect younger people.
Dementia v/s Alzheimer’s
People often confuse the two terms and use them interchangeably, which is not right. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term for all memory loss problems including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, etc.
Stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Stage 1: No memory problems and the disease is not detectable
Stage 2: Some of the initial symptoms are visible at this stage such as forgetfulness. But it cannot be easily distinguished
Stage 3: People around you may start noticing the cognitive decline. The disease is detectable at this stage. People at stage 3 will have difficulty will have difficulty in finding the right words, forget the names of people frequently, and organizing. They may even start losing personal possessions.
Stage 4: People at this stage show prominent symptoms of the disease including forgetting about their own life history, inability to solve basic math problems, or not able to manage or pay bills.
Stage 5: Moderate to severe symptoms appear and people at this stage might need help with daily activities.
Stage 6: At this stage, people with Alzheimer’s will need constant supervision and help with basic daily activities.
Stage 7: People at stage 7 are nearing death as it is a terminal disease. At this stage, they will forget how to communicate or respond to surroundings. At the final stage of the disease, people may even forget the ability to swallow.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of irreversible brain illness which causes dementia. People with Alzheimer’s have memory loss, loss of the ability to solve problems, personality changes and behavioural problems which can progress into something severe enough as the disease progresses to interfere with normal activities and relationships.
Some common signs and symptoms which can indicate or help detect Alzheimer’s disease at an early stage are:
- Frequent loss of memory in particular recent conversations, appointments or events
- Difficulty in concentrating and shortened attention span
- Often misplacing personal belongings and keeping things in illogical locations
- Difficulty in doing everyday activities that needs sequential steps – like operating the washing machine, making or grinding or cooking a meal
- Change in behaviour like feeling depressed, apathetic, irritability, and aggression and also have mood swings
- Difficulty in expressing and understanding the language
- Using Poor judgment in decisions
As the disease progresses, a person can experience more episodes of forgetfulness and symptoms might change according to the disease.
Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is unknown but experts say that genetics, lifestyle habits and environmental factors can impact the brain over time.
- Genetics: Most people with Alzheimer's disease do not have a family history of the condition, but the risk of developing AD is increased if a member of your family has it.
- Down syndrome: The reason behind this is unclear but those who suffer from Down syndrome are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s
- Age: Your risk of Alzheimer’s goes up as you get older. People over 65 are more at risk of developing the disease.
- High cholesterol levels and high blood pressure can also put you at risk of developing the disease
All of these are risk factors, which don’t mean that you will develop the disease. It just increases the risk of developing the disease.
AD can lead to one or more complications including:
- Restlessness and agitation
- Chronic headaches
- Sleep disorders
- Bladder and bowel problems
To diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, a brain specialist (neurologist) and geriatrician (a doctor trained to treat older adults) will review your symptoms and medical history. The doctor will conduct a mental status test, a neuropsychological test, and ask questions to your family and friends. If the diagnosis is not clear, your doctor might conduct other tests.
History and a Physical Exam: Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is made on the medical and physical history of a person. During the physical exam, the doctor tries to find out if there are any physical factors causing the disease.
Mental Health Assessment: Your doctor will do a functional status exam and a mental health assessment. These tests check your ability to perform simple and sequential tasks. They also ask the family members, present at the time of the examination, about the patient’s day-to-day functioning, memory, and changes in the personality.
Brain Imaging Tests: Alzheimer’s is a result of the progressive loss of brain cells. This degeneration can be detected in a variety of brain scans, for example,
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
- Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
- Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan
Lab Tests: Lab tests are conducted to rule out any possible treatable causes such as liver disease, abnormal thyroid levels, or nutritional problems such as folate or vitamin B12 deficiency. Some of the other tests suggested by the doctor might include a complete blood count, liver function tests, folate test, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection test.
Diagnosis is done based on your signs and symptoms, the progression of the disease, and several other factors.
There is not a specific cure for Alzheimer’s but changing your lifestyle habits can help prevent the disease. Some of the lifestyle habits that you can inculcate in your daily regime include:
- Healthy eating habits are a must to avoid Alzheimer’s
- Follow a Mediterranean diet
- Avoid fast food, fried and packaged food
- Eat plenty of Omega-3 fatty foods
- Eat loads of fruits and vegetables
- Regular exercise can help stimulate the brain’s ability to build connections. Include some cardio and strength training to get the benefits.
- Staying in contact with people can protect you against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Being more social and networking can lower the risk of mental health issues.
- Good sleeping habits promote a better mood and increase your thinking power. Bad sleeping habits can lead to various health diseases including memory and cognitive impairment.
Control your stress levels as the problem of chronic stress can affect the proper functioning of the brain and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.