Alzheimer's Disease Overview
Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive (worsens over time) brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. It is the most common cause of dementia among older people. While most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 or older, it is not a normal part of aging and occasionally occurs in younger people.
Although treatment can slow the progression of the disease and help manage symptoms in some patients, there is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s Disease.
An estimated 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer’s and that number is likely to increase. That’s because the likelihood of developing the disease doubles every five years after age 65, and the American population is aging.
Alzheimer’s is a slow-to-develop disease with three distinct phases:
- Stage 1 is an early, preclinical stage with no symptoms
- Phase 2 is characterized by minor cognitive impairment
- Phase 3 is the final stage of severe impairment
Alzheimer’s Disease is a form of dementia, which refers to the loss of cognitive functioning (thinking, remembering and reasoning) and behavior abilities. Another common form of dementia is vascular dementia, which is caused by strokes.
Wellstar neurologists are expert in diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease and helping patients and families manage the symptoms and stress that can be part of a diagnosis. Our doctors work collaboratively to identify the best treatment options for each patient, including innovative approaches and medications.
Symptoms can vary considerably from patient to patient. According to The Alzheimer’s Association there are 10 primary warning signs:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as asking for the same information repeatedly or forgetting recently learned information.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems, or changes in the ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. Examples are difficulty following a familiar recipe or managing monthly bills.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks such as driving to a known location or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
- Confusion with time and place. Losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time, or forgetting where you are and how you got there.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. People may have trouble reading, judging distance and determining color or contrast. They may not recognize their own reflection.
- Problems with words in speaking or writing. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may struggle with vocabulary or call things by the wrong name.
- Misplacing objects and losing the ability to retrace steps. Patients may put things in unusual places and may accuse others of stealing.
- Decreased judgement. Those with Alzheimer’s may use poor judgement when dealing with money or pay less attention to grooming.
- Withdrawing from work or social activities. Individuals may start pulling away from hobbies or work projects and may avoid being social because of changes they are aware of.
- Changes in mood and personality. Those with the disease can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious and may become easily upset, especially outside their comfort zone.
Though the exact causes of Alzheimer’s Disease are not known, Wellstar doctors agree with experts who believe it is caused by complex interactions among genes and other risk factors. Age is the primary risk factor.
A small number of cases may be caused by inherited mutated genes. The only gene identified to date as a risk factor is one that makes a protein called apoliopoprotein E, known as the APOE gene. About 15% of people have the form of this gene associated with Alzheimer’s.
Family history can be a risk factor for early-onset Alzheimer’s (diagnosed before age 65). Additionally, there may be a link between serious head injury and future development of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer's Disease Prevention
A great deal of research is under way to determine if certain lifestyle changes can help prevent the onset or severity of Alzheimer’s Disease. So far studies have not shown that health or lifestyle habits can prevent or slow the disease over the long term. And no medication or dietary supplement has been shown to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Researchers continue to investigate the possible role of exercise and physical activity, diet, antioxidants, and the presence of other conditions like vascular disease, heart disease, high blood pressure and type-2 diabetes.
Meanwhile, Wellstar neurologists recommend good body and brain health practices including:
- Stop smoking if you smoke or don’t start.
- Live a healthy lifestyle that includes a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
- Get regular exercise and brain stimulation.
Alzheimer's Disease Diagnosis
A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s cannot be made in a living person. It requires examination of the brain (autopsy) for characteristic plaques and tangles. However, Wellstar neurologists can make an accurate diagnosis up to 90% of the time based on expertise and experience.
Tools and Tests
Tools and tests used to make what’s known as a probable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s include:
- A medical history that reveals answers to questions about health problems and daily behaviors that could be related to Alzheimer ’s disease
- Tests that assess memory problem solving and attentiveness
- Blood urine or spinal fluid tests to identify other possible causes of the symptoms.
- Brain scans (including CT or MRI)
Alzheimer's Disease Treatment
While no treatment has been show to actually stop Alzheimer’s, several drugs may slow the progression of some symptoms for a time in people with early or middle-stage disease. These include Aricept® (donepezil), Exelon® (rivastigmine) and Razadyne® (galantamine). Moderate to severe Alzheimer's may be treated with Namenda® (mematine).
Your Wellstar neurologist will discuss possible treatments with patients and their family members to determine the best course of action. Alzheimer’s is a challenging diagnosis and although there is not a simple cure, there are strategies to help loved ones and caregivers ease the burden.
Researchers are working on developing new treatments for dementia. Ask your Wellstar neurologist about the possibility of clinical trials that let patients participate in dementia research and take advantage of emerging drugs and treatments.
Ongoing Care for Alzheimer's Disease
Palliative care and hospice. Wellstar’s certified palliative care physicians and certified registered nurses are dedicated to providing compassionate, quality care in various settings, including home hospice, inpatient hospice nursing homes, assisted living facilities and nursing homes. We operate one of Georgia’s oldest hospice programs serving Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas and Paulding counties.