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Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia — the loss of intellectual and social abilities severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. In Alzheimer's disease, healthy brain tissue degenerates, causing a steady decline in memory and mental abilities. Alzheimer's disease is not a part of normal aging, but the risk of the disorder increases with age. About 5 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 have Alzheimer's disease, while nearly half the people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer's. Although there's no cure, treatments may improve the quality of life for people with Alzheimer's disease. Those with Alzheimer's — as well as those who care for them — need support and affection from friends and family to cope.
Complications of Alzheimer’s disease
In advanced Alzheimer's disease, people may lose all ability to care for themselves. This can make them more prone to additional health problems such as:
Causes of Alzheimer’s disease
No one factor appears to cause Alzheimer's disease. Instead, scientists believe that it may take a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors to trigger the onset of symptoms. While the causes of Alzheimer's are poorly understood, its effect on brain tissue is clear. Alzheimer's disease damages and kills brain cells.
Two types of brain cell (neuron) damage are common in people who have Alzheimer's:
Signs & Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer's disease may start with slight memory loss and confusion, but it eventually leads to irreversible mental impairment that destroys a person's ability to remember, reason, learn and imagine.
Everyone has occasional lapses in memory. It's normal to forget where you put your car keys or to blank on the names of people whom you rarely see. But the memory problems associated with Alzheimer's disease persist and worsen. People with Alzheimer's may:
Problems with abstract thinking
People with Alzheimer's may initially have trouble balancing their checkbook, a problem that progresses to trouble recognizing and dealing with numbers.
Difficulty finding the right word
It may be a challenge for those with Alzheimer's to find the right words to express thoughts or even follow conversations. Eventually, reading and writing also are affected.
People with Alzheimer's disease often lose their sense of time and dates, and may find themselves lost in familiar surroundings.
Loss of judgment
Solving everyday problems, such as knowing what to do if food on the stove is burning, becomes increasingly difficult, eventually impossible. Alzheimer's is characterized by greater difficulty in doing things that require planning, decision making and judgment.
Difficulty performing familiar tasks
Once-routine tasks that require sequential steps, such as cooking, become a struggle as the disease progresses. Eventually, people with advanced Alzheimer's may forget how to do even the most basic things.
People with Alzheimer's may exhibit:
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease
Doctors can accurately diagnose 90 percent of Alzheimer's cases. Alzheimer's disease can be diagnosed with complete accuracy only after death, when microscopic examination of the brain reveals plaques and tangles. To help distinguish Alzheimer's disease from other causes of memory loss, doctors typically rely on the following types of tests.
Blood tests may be done to help doctors rule out other potential causes of the dementia, such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies.
Sometimes doctors undertake a more extensive assessment of thinking and memory skills. This type of testing, which can take several hours to complete, is especially helpful in trying to detect Alzheimer's and other dementias at an early stage.
By looking at images of the brain, doctors may be able to pinpoint any visible abnormalities — such as clots, bleeding or tumors — that may be causing signs and symptoms. Positron emission tomography (PET) can reveal areas of the brain that may be less active and the density of amyloid plaques.
Treatments of Alzheimer’s disease
Currently, there's no cure for Alzheimer's disease. Doctors sometimes prescribe drugs to improve signs and symptoms that often accompany Alzheimer's, including sleeplessness, wandering, anxiety, agitation and depression. But only two varieties of medications have been proved to slow the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's.
This group of medications — which includes donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) and galantamine (Razadyne) — works by improving the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. But cholinesterase inhibitors don't work for everyone. As many as half the people who take these drugs show no improvement. Other people may choose to stop taking the drugs because of the side effects, which include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
The first drug approved to treat moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer's, memantine protects brain cells from damage caused by the chemical messenger glutamate. It sometimes is used in combination with a cholinesterase inhibitor. Memantine's most common side effect is dizziness, although it also appears to increase agitation and delusional behavior in some people.
Prevention of Alzheimer’s disease
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