What is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease (or Alzheimer's) is a slowly-developing disease of the brain and nerve tissues that leads to a decline in the cognitive and behavioural functions of a person. Symptoms may take up to a few years to appear, which leads to a gradual deterioration in mental capabilities, but in some cases, the onset of symptoms and loss of cognitive function occurs rapidly (may even be less than a year).
Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia (loss of memory and behavioural changes), and it is more common among people over 65 years. As much as this is the case with most patients who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's, there's been a few reported cases of this type of dementia in individuals younger than 65 years old (usually 40-50 years old). There's a possibility that this may present in even younger age groups.
What is the cause of Alzheimer's?
The exact cause of Alzheimer's disease remains unknown, but multiple factors that increase the risk of development of Alzheimer's have been identified. The most common risk factor is age. Older individuals over 65 years are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's than those younger. Other risk factors include:
- Family history of Alzheimer's. When a family member -mother, father or sibling- has Alzheimer's, there's increased risk for other family members. It may be due to genetic or environmental factors.
- Head injury
- Cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, stroke, etc. Damage to the heart and blood vessels increases the risk of vascular or Alzheimer's dementia.
- Other medical conditions such as chronic infection by Herpes and Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme disease), increases the risk of Alzheimer's.
- Lack of good social and emotional support promotes unhealthy ageing, which can result in dementia.
- Past history of depression has also been associated with an increased risk of dementia.
Early-onset Alzheimer's develops before the age of 65 years (commonly from 40-50 years old). The exact cause is not fully understood. It is estimated that some cases of Early Onset Alzheimer's may be attributed to inherited rare genetic mutations, and in this case, more than one family member is affected. Other causes may be due to lifestyle and environmental factors.
What are the symptoms?
The onset of symptoms of Alzheimer's is due to the build-up of plaque and tangles in the brain. These plaques are made of insoluble proteins, which inhibit the transmission of signals from one neuron to another. This leads to changes in the way the patient perceives and processes information as well as behavioural changes.
The most noticeable early symptom of Alzheimer's is a loss of short-term memories. The individual is unable to remember recently details of recent events but can remember past events. In advanced cases of Alzheimer's, the patient may begin to re-enact past events.
Changes in cognition and behaviour is another common presentation of Alzheimer's. In the early phase of the disease, the patient experiences changes such as mood swings, depression, anxiety, confusion, forgetfulness, changes in the ability to concentrate and attention. Patients during the course of the disease tend to neglect personal hygiene. In most cases, it is people around the patient who notice these behavioural changes.
Over time, as the disease progresses, the patient begins to experience difficulty with speech, remembering names of everyday objects and even problems with movement.
In severe Alzheimer's disease, patients suffer weight loss, increased sleeping, skin and other infections and lack of bowel & bladder control.
Patients may experience periods of lucidity, where they regain orientation of whom they are, what time it is and where they are. During this period, they can recognize those around them and can understand that they're seriously ill. The lucid period may last from a few minutes to a few days.
How Can We Manage Alzheimer's?
Currently, there's no cure for Alzheimer's disease, and there is no medication to stop the progression of disease either. The medications are available for Alzheimer's only help to slow down the rate of deterioration and manage other symptoms. Early diagnosis is the key to maintaining good cognitive function with medications.
Research into Alzheimer's has shown that there is a possible link between certain heart & cardiovascular metabolic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, and the development of Alzheimer's disease. Although this connection is not fully understood, a healthy lifestyle, good diet and proper control of blood pressure have shown to be helpful in the prevention of Alzheimer's.
Certain lifestyle choices which have shown positive outcome include:
- Regular physical activities such as running, hikes, swimming, etc.
- A healthy diet which is high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish, poultry, seeds, beans, and low in sodium, red meat, sugary drinks and sweets
- Intellectual activities such as word games, puzzles, etc.
- Social connections like meeting up with friends and family and spending quality time with people who foster positive moods, as these activities help to keep mentally active, and reduce cognitive decline as people age.
- Protection of the head from physical trauma by helmets during sports and biking and use of seat belts while driving.
The Future of Alzheimer's Disease
Although there is still no cure for Alzheimer's, there are a number of promising research and trials, which gives a bit of hope for the future of humanity with regard to this disease, and one day, it would no longer be a burden for the ageing mind, but rather it'd be a thing of the past.
Article By: Tamara Odiki