Alzheimer’s: What is it?
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, is a brain disorder that progressively destroys memory and thinking skills, ultimately resulting in the inability to carry out even the simplest tasks. Currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., more recent research suggests that it may rank even higher for older Americans, right behind heart disease and cancer.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s generally begin to appear when an individual reaches the mid-60s in age and develop slowly, becoming more severe over time. Dementia is not a specific disease: it is an umbrella-type term that describes a wide range of symptoms. Not everyone who has dementia has Alzheimer’s, but it is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s. The resulting symptoms are those associated with dementia — the loss of cognitive functions, like the ability to think and reason clearly, as well as access memory, long and short term. Behavioral abilities eventually deteriorate to the point where the individual must rely on others for basic tasks.
Alzheimer’s disease was first detected in 1906 by the German physician Alois Alzheimer. Dr. Alzheimer worked with a patient known only as Auguste D, who presented seemingly unexplainable symptoms, including memory loss, unfounded suspicions about people close to her and other psychological and behavioral changes that became progressively worse. After her death, her autopsy revealed abnormal clumps, now called amyloid plaques, and bundles of tangled fibers, which are now identified as neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles. Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain, along with the loss of connections between neurons, are considered some of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease, which can only be definitively diagnosed through an autopsy.
Despite ongoing research, no one knows what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people. When the disease manifests earlier in life, it is believed that there is more likelihood of there being a genetic link. This is called early-onset Alzheimer’s and usually occurs between a person’s 30s and mid-60s. Beyond the mid-60’s, late-onset Alzheimer’s is accompanied by a series of complex changes in the brain that have been taking place for decades. Affecting each person with Alzheimer’s differently, the causes of these changes are believed to combine genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors.
Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, these are the 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
There is currently no known way to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s. Management of the disease, which can be devastating in terms of quality of life for the patient as well as the caregivers, focuses on helping the individual maintain mental function and manage behavioral symptoms.