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Alzheimer's Disease: Information on Causes, Diagnosis & Treatments

Alzheimer's Brain Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia affecting 80 percent of all individuals with dementia. The permanently progressive disorder of the brain involves memory loss and the destruction of thinking skills and is not a normal symptom of the aging process. Eventually, the individual loses their capacity to perform even the most basic tasks. The first symptoms of the progressive disease usually appear around age 65.

The disease acquired its moniker 1906 when Dr. Alzheimer discovered abnormalities of a woman's brain tissue after she succumbed to an unfamiliar mental illness. The doctor knew that prior to the woman's death, she had suffered from language issues, memory loss, and random behavior. A postmortem examination of her brain tissue revealed amyloid plaques (clumping brain tissue abnormalities) and neurofibrillary (tangled clusters of neural fibers).

Scientists have yet to determine all the facets of the complex brain associated with the progressive Alzheimer's disease. However, most scientists agree that the damaging effects of brain tissue likely began decades before problems with cognitive abilities were revealed. Even though doctors can provide a variety of treatment options that manage symptoms associated with Alzheimer's, currently, no cure exists.

Who is Affected?

Most individuals who develop Alzheimer's disease acquire the condition after 65 years of age. However, early-onset stages (young-onset dementia) of the condition can happen to both males and females at any age. Scientists believe that the condition is correlated with the combination of known factors that include age, gender, genetic inheritance, health, and lifestyle.

  • Age – The age of the individual is the leading risk factor for the development of Alzheimer's disease. Individuals older than 65 years have a greater chance of acquiring the disease that doubles about every five years. Nearly 13 percent of the population of individuals 80 years and older suffer from some form of dementia.

  • Gender – Scientists have yet to discover why women who are 65 years or older are twice as likely as men at the same age to develop Alzheimer's disease. Some researchers believe the greater potential might be linked to the fact that women live longer than men on average. Others believe there is a correlation between estrogen hormone changes after menopause and the development of this form of dementia.

  • Genetic Inheritance – While many diseases are passed down between generations, it appears as though Alzheimer's disease is not one of them. Inheriting the dementia condition from parents and grandparents is extremely rare. There are likely other factors including health and lifestyle choices that reduce or eliminate the inevitability of inheriting the memory loss condition. That said, individuals with Down syndrome are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, this is likely because of gene variations.

  • Health and Lifestyle Choices – How an individual lives their life and chooses to manage their health can significantly decrease the potential risks of developing vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Alternatively, individuals who are obese, suffer from high cholesterol and high blood pressure, have had heart or stroke problems or are diabetic are more likely to develop the condition over time. There is also a correlation between being depressed and developing dementia, so it is important to receive early treatment when depressed.

Individuals who develop a healthy lifestyle, especially when nearing retirement have a significantly lower potential risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. This type of lifestyle requires a routine of physical exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation.

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The Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease

A medical diagnosis is required to determine if the individual is truly suffering from Alzheimer's disease. However, there are often major indicators that the individual suffering from some type of dementia when there are changes in cognitive ability, behavior, mood, psychological expression, and other factors.

  • Cognitive Abilities – The patient may show signs of mental decline and confusion, especially in the evening and show signs of forgetfulness. The patient might also be hard to understand, have difficulty in thinking, be disorientated and show signs of delusion. There may be indications of a difficulty in concentrating, the lack of capacity to perform simple math problems, the inability to create a new memory or the loss of recognition in the most common things.

  • Behavioral Changes – The patient may show signs of agitation or aggression, feel irritable, have difficulty in providing for their own care, have changes in their personality, or meaninglessly repeat the same words. At later stages, the patient may become lost in their own environment or elope (wander away) from their home setting.

  • Mood Changes – Individual suffering from Alzheimer's disease may display obvious changes in their mood by showing anger, loneliness, general discontent, and mood swings.

  • Psychological Changes – Common symptoms involving psychological changes include the development of paranoia, hallucinations, or depression.

Many individuals with the condition are often restless and lose their appetite, speak jumbled words, or lose muscle movement control.

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Diagnosing the Condition

Alzheimer's disease cannot be diagnosed using a single test. The doctor will likely verify the condition by ruling out other medical conditions that share similar signs, symptoms, and indicators including thyroid deficiencies, infections, drug side effects, and depression. In addition to collecting a comprehensive medical history of the patient, the doctor will perform a battery of tests to evaluate the patient's mental abilities and determine how common symptoms associated with Alzheimer's might be affecting their personal life.

Assessing the patient's condition in detail can help set a baseline that can be used in future evaluations to see if the patient's memory is gradually worsening over several months. As part of the evaluation, family members may be asked to participate in the diagnosis because they are likely more aware of significant memory and behavior changes than the patient would be on their own.

As a part of a comprehensive assessment, the doctor or medical professional will use recall evaluations to determine the patient's mental abilities. This is because individuals suffering from the condition often quickly forget what was just discussed moments earlier.

The doctor may require the patient undergo a brain scan (MRI-magnetic resonance imaging or CT – Computerized tomography scan) to detect certain conditions including brain fluid buildups, tumors, and strokes in the brain. These conditions often display similar symptoms to Alzheimer's disease.

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Treating Alzheimer's

Scientists have yet to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease. However, there are effective treatment support systems to make the patient's life more enjoyable. The doctor can provide numerous medications to treat Alzheimer's disease or other dementia during its mild or moderate stages these include:

  • Aricept (donepezil)

  • Exelon (rivastigmine)

  • Reminyl (galantamine)

In some cases, the medication improves memory loss, concentration levels, and motivation. These improvements can significantly enhance the quality of daily living when performing hobbies, shopping, and cooking.

However, in the later stages, the doctor will usually only prescribed Ebixa (memantine) to ease distress, improve daily living, enhance mental abilities, and manage challenging behaviors including delusion and agitation. Doctors often recommend that their dementia patients who feel anxious or depressed to undergo cognitive behavior therapy or take antidepressants.

The distressing and changing behaviors of individuals suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other mixed dementias can be challenging to caregivers who must often rely on support systems to relieve their own built-up tension and aggravation.

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