• What Is Alzheimer’s?
|What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain that causes memory loss, confusion, impaired thinking and dementia. There is no cure and the patient progressively becomes worse. The average survival rate is 8 years after diagnosis. Alzheimer’s is an older person's disease; the majority of those affected are over the age of 65. However, up to 5 percent of patients are in their 40s and 50s and have what is known as younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
Basically, dementia is a symptom of an underlying disease and Alzheimer’s is one type of disease that can cause it.
Dementia is a general term to describe decline of mental ability in the elderly (memory loss for example). It used to be called senile dementia or senility because it was once thought to be a natural part of the aging process. Today this is no longer thought to be the case. Researchers believe it only afflicts people who have an underlying disease or disorder. Alzheimer’s is the cause of 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia. Vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common cause. In some cases dementia may be reversible if it caused by a treatable condition like thyroid disease or due to a vitamin deficiency.
Usually, the first warning sign of Alzheimer's is difficulty remembering newly learned information. This is because the disease begins by destroying the part of the brain that affects learning. As it advances, it causes other symptoms such as:
The cause or causes of Alzheimer’s are not yet fully understood (which is why we still have no cure). Scientists believe most cases are probably the result of a combination of 'bad' genes, lifestyle choices and environmental factors that together destroy the brain over time. As the disease develops it kills brain cells. As more cells are killed the brain gradually shrinks and is less capable of functioning normally.
About 15 percent of people with Alzheimer's have one parent with the disease. Scientists have identified several inheritable genes associated with Alzheimer's. Mostly if you have these genes it increases your risk factor, but it does not guarantee you develop the disease. People who develop early onset Alzheimer’s, are an exception. They will have inherited a specific type of gene that guaranteed they developed Alzheimer's.
There is no single test for Alzheimer’s. A team of doctors conduct a battery of physical, neurological and psychiatric tests to rule out other causes of dementia - some of which may be treatable. The diagnosis of Alzheimer's is essentially an educated guess. At present the only way to diagnose the condition conclusively is to look at the brain during an autopsy. In actual practice is it estimated that 25 to 40 percent of people with Alzheimer’s are misdiagnosed. Many may in fact have treatable or reversible conditions that can cause Alzheimer-like symptoms such as thyroid disease, vitamin B deficiency, alcoholism or over-medication. A detailed examination from a skilled team of physicians can significantly reduce the risk of misdiagnosis.
Currently there is no treatment that can prevent or halt the progression of the disease. Certain FDA approved medications may however temporarily improve cognitive (brain) symptoms in some patients (on average for 6 to 12 months only). These are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine (Namenda). A high dose of vitamin E may also be recommended for its antioxidant properties. Eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise and engaging in regular social activity can make the condition more bearable (this applies just as much to the caregivers because looking after someone with Alzheimer’s is a 24 hour job). For more, treatment for alzheimer's as well as alternative treatment for alzheimer's.
Until the cause is better understood, advice on how to prevent the disease is limited. The strongest evidence so far shows that people with uncontrolled high blood pressure (hypertension) have an increase risk of dementia. For women with hypertension, keeping it under control makes sense. Other possible contributory factors may include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and high blood cholesterol. For more, see how to prevent Alzheimer's.
• An estimated 5.1 million Americans and 500,000 Canadians have Alzheimer’s.
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