What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is a well-known and often talked about disease. And, it is simple yet complicated. It is simple because the outcome, cognitive decline, is easy to understand. It is complicated because it is tough to nail down a cause, therefore making it very hard to treat and prevent.

Alzheimer's disease, a type of dementia, is a progressive neurological disease. The nerve cells begin to deteriorate and the brain shrinks. Extensive research and study of Alzheimer’s is continually being conducted, however, two abnormalities are always present: protein plaque build-up found between brain cells and twisted fibers of protein found inside brain nerve cells, called tangles.  With these abnormalities present the brain’s circuitry begins to frazzle and communications are blocked. When the neurotransmitters lose direction symptoms, like memory loss, begin to occur.

The majority of Alzheimer’s sufferers are aged 65 and older.  In the United States, roughly 5.3 million people are affected. Early onset is much less common but does affect about 200,000 people. Chances are, most of us know one person in our lives who is affected.

Alzheimer’s a degenerative disease, which means it evolves and worsens over time. The rate at which Alzheimer’s progresses is different for everyone.

The worsening happens, more or less, in three stages:

Mild

  • Memory loss

  • Repeating questions

  • Trouble managing everyday tasks (paying bills, losing direction, keeping appointments)

  • Mood changes and increased anxiety

Moderate

  • Increased memory loss

  • Inability to learn new things and coping with new situations

  • Shortened attentions spans

  • Increased bouts of anger

  • Restlessness, mood swings

  • Wandering

Severe

  • Body functions begin to shut down (difficulty swallowing and loss of bladder control)

  • Inability to communicate

  • Seizures

There are certain risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s. Some are unavoidable and some can possibly be avoided. We have to say “possibly” because nothing is surefire. However, it is better to do the best we can to manage what we can control.

Unavoidable

  • AGE Aging is inevitable, and our brains will age along with the rest of our bodies.

  • GENETICS Those with a family history of the disease might be more prone to developing themselves. This is not a definitive direct cause, but it should not be dismissed.

  • If you have a certain form of the gene called the APOE. This is rare, but those who inherit a copy of the e4 allele are at a greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Those who inherit two copies have an even greater risk. It is important to note that possessing this gene only increases risk, it does not directly cause the disease. Not all people with Alzheimer disease have the APOE e4 allele, and not all people who have this allele will develop the disease.

Potentially Avoidable

  • High cholesterol and high blood pressure. These lead to Type II Diabetes which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. Diet and exercise has a direct effect on managing cholesterol and blood pressure.

  • Low educational and intellectual stimulation. The brain needs exercise just like the rest of our body. Exercise for the brain comes in the form of critical thinking and socialization.

  • HEAD INJURY Prior head injuries are rare, but can’t be ruled out. These also might not be entirely avoidable, but if we take the necessary precautions, such as wearing a helmet or safely participating in contact sports, may reduce that risk.

Overall, there is still a lot to learn about Alzheimer’s disease. In many ways it remains a mystery, which can cause frustration and anguish. There are medications that help aid the management, but cannot altogether cure Alzheimer’s. These medications help alleviate symptoms and can slow the progression of the disease. While we do have options, the best defense against Alzheimer’s is proactive prevention. Reduce your risk by taking care of your heath. Eat healthy foods, exercise and keep your brain busy with mental stimulation. Please refer to other posts in this series for more information about prevention.