Alzheimer’s disease is a word many of us are familiar with. But do we know enough about the disease and how it may impact our lives – how it begins, what it does and what cures are available? These FAQs seek to provide a well-rounded foundation on Alzheimer’s disease.
1. What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s is a disease that occurs in the brain. It slowly impacts memory and thinking skills, and in the long run it will eventually impact a person’s ability to carry out the simplest tasks. The onset of Alzheimer’s may be slow, but it tends to get worse over time.
2. What is dementia?
Dementia is a loss of thinking, remembering and reasoning skills that tends to interfere with a person’s daily life and activities. The most common cause of dementia in older people is Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia can range in severity. In its mild stage, this mental illness can affect a person’s functioning. In the more severe stages, a person must depend on others for complete care.
3. How many people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease?
While estimates vary, it is believed that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease. It is also currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. However, recent estimates indicate that it may, in fact, rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer.
4. What is the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease?
Memory problems are usually the first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. Other symptoms include a decline in other aspects of thinking, such as finding the right words, vision or spatial issues as well as impaired reasoning or judgment.
5. What are the stages in the development of Alzheimer’s disease?
In the early stage of Alzheimer’s a person may
• Find it hard to remember things.
• Ask the same questions repeatedly.
• Get lost in familiar places.
• Lose things or put them in unusual places.
• Have trouble handling money and paying bills.
• Take longer than they normally would to finish daily tasks.
Once Alzheimer’s has progressed to the middle stages, the symptoms, particularly memory loss and confusion, grow worse. At this stage, people may also have problems recognizing family and friends. Other symptoms include:
• Difficulty learning new things and coping with new situations.
• Trouble carrying out tasks that involve many steps, such as getting dressed.
• Impulsive behavior.
• Forgetting the names of common things.
• Hallucinations, delusions or paranoia.
• Wandering away from home.
Once Alzheimer’s has progressed to the more severe stages, symptoms include:
• Inability to communicate.
• More likely to sleep.
• Weight loss.
• Trouble swallowing.
• They often become incontinent – they cannot control their bladder or bowels.
• Are in need of total care.
6. What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
It’s exact cause is not yet known. In its early onset, which occurs in people aged between 30 and 60, a genetic mutation is usually the cause. Late-onset of Alzheimer’s develops after the age of 60 and arises from a complex series of brain changes that occur over decades. The causes may include a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.
Age is the most well-known risk for Alzheimer’s disease. However, lifestyle factors such as diet and physical exercise as well as long-term health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes may also play a role.
7. If you become forgetful as you get older, does that mean you will get Alzheimer’s disease?
No. Not all memory problems are caused by Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, mild forgetfulness is often a normal part of aging. Memory problems may also be related to a treatable health issue too. The following conditions may signal future memory loss, or possibly dementia:
• Medication side effects.
• Vitamin B12 deficiency.
• Chronic alcoholism.
• Tumors or infections in the brain.
• Thyroid, liver or kidney disorders also can lead to memory loss.
• Emotional problems such as stress, anxiety or depression may make a person forgetful. But the confusion and forgetfulness caused by emotions usually are temporary and tend to subside once the feelings fade.
8. Why is early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s important?
An early diagnosis can help people and their families plan for the future, giving them time to discuss care options, find support and make legal and financial arrangements while the person with Alzheimer’s is still able to. In addition, early diagnosis offers the best chance to treat the symptoms.
9. Are there any medicines to treat Alzheimer’s disease?
Unfortunately there are no medications to stop Alzheimer’s disease. But four medications are recommended to treat the symptoms, including thinking, memory and speaking skills. They work by regulating certain chemicals in the brain. But most of these medicines work best for people diagnosed in the early or middle stages of the disease.
10. Is there anything I can do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
While there are no medicines or treatments that one can take to prevent Alzheimer’s, scientists are looking into many possibilities including lifestyle factors like exercise and physical activity, a healthy diet as well as mentally stimulating activities.
Scientists have also found clues that certain long-term health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It may therefore be possible that controlling these conditions will reduce a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.