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A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease

Guide to Alzheimers

Alzheimer’s disease has become one of the most well-known cognitive disorders. You’ve likely seen characters in popular culture with this condition and watched commercials for medications to treat its symptoms. You may have even seen events and social media posts celebrating Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in November. But what is Alzheimer’s exactly, and how can you know if your loved one has this disease? 

The Alzheimer’s Association defines this condition as “a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms eventually grow severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.” This condition typically affects people aged 65 and older, and the risk increases with age. However, younger people may develop early-onset Alzheimer’s. 

Alzheimer’s disease occurs when irreversible changes in the brain cause cognitive decline. This condition has many symptoms, including memory loss and mood changes. These signs worsen over time as the disease progresses in stages. At first, people with Alzheimer’s develop mild cognitive impairment. Eventually, the disease progresses to severe dementia, which significantly affects daily functioning. 

There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease yet. However, healthcare providers recommend medications and lifestyle changes to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being. Seek diagnosis and treatment as early as possible if you suspect your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease. 

This guide covers must-know information about Alzheimer’s disease, including signs and symptoms, causes, and treatment options. We’ll also explore strategies to reduce the risk of your loved one developing this condition. 

What Are the Differences Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

People often use the terms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia interchangeably. However, these conditions have a few key differences. 

According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is “an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological conditions affecting the brain that get worse over time.” These conditions all affect cognitive function but have distinct causes and symptoms.  

Here are the most common types of dementia: 

  • Alzheimer’s Disease: This condition occurs when abnormal deposits of tau proteins form plaques and tangled bundles of fibers in the brain. These structures damage and eventually kill neurons, leading to cognitive decline. Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent form of dementia, contributing to an estimated 60% to 70% of cases. 
  • Frontotemporal Dementia: This disease is caused by abnormal amounts of proteins and tau that build up inside the frontal and temporal lobes. It causes behavioral changes, movement issues, and language problems. 
  • Lewy Body Dementia: Abnormal deposits of proteins called “Lewy bodies” inhibit the brain’s ability to send chemical messages. This type of dementia affects cognition, movement, and sleep. It may also cause visual hallucinations. 
  • Vascular Dementia: Blood clots and other conditions inhibit blood flow in the brain, damaging cells. Symptoms include hallucinations, forgetting events, losing items, and poor judgment. 

A healthcare provider can evaluate your loved one to determine if they have one of these disorders and provide appropriate treatment. 

What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease? 

Many people experience a slight decline in their cognitive abilities as they age. You may notice that your senior loved one takes longer to remember information and think. They might also have slower reflexes. These symptoms are a natural and expected part of aging as long as they happen gradually and don’t affect daily functioning. 

Alzheimer’s disease goes beyond normal aging by causing significant and progressive cognitive decline. It has many symptoms that vary by individual and stage of the disease. 

Early Warning Signs

The early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease can be subtle but may include: 

  • Minor memory lapses, such as forgetting appointments and names 
  • Misplacing or losing objects 
  • Loss of motivation 
  • Reduced decision-making and problem-solving abilities 
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Getting lost or wandering 
  • Personality changes
  • Anxiety 
  • Aggression 

These symptoms often begin gradually, so it can be easy to overlook them. For instance, you may notice that your loved one has lost interest in hobbies and feels anxious about driving. Observe them closely and seek help if you notice multiple or persistent signs of cognitive decline. 

Symptoms of Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease 

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s become more noticeable as the disease progresses and more neural pathways get disrupted. Here are a few signs of moderate Alzheimer’s disease: 

  • More severe memory lapses 
  • Disrupted sleeping patterns 
  • Inability to perform routine tasks 
  • Communication difficulties 
  • Trouble focusing 
  • Delusions and hallucinations 
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Agitation, restlessness, and anxiety
  • Repetitive movements 

What Are the Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease? 

Alzheimer’s disease typically progresses through five stages

Preclinical Alzheimer’s disease occurs when amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles start forming in the brain. Advanced imaging technologies can detect these structures, but you won’t notice any symptoms. The preclinical stage can last for many years. 

The next phase is mild cognitive impairment (MCI) caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Affected people have mild problems with memory and thinking. For example, they may frequently forget conversations and lose their car keys. However, these symptoms don’t significantly impact their daily lives and relationships. 

MCI progresses to mild dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. People with this condition have more noticeable cognition problems. They can get lost in familiar locations and forget common words. You may also observe personality changes, such as increased irritability or withdrawal. Most people get diagnosed during this stage due to the obvious symptoms. 

The fourth stage is moderate dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. During this phase, the condition causes a significant decline in cognitive function. Affected individuals often get confused and forget events and people from their personal history. They may make impulsive decisions and become paranoid or agitated. Many people with moderate dementia rely on caregivers for assistance with daily activities. 

The final stage is severe dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. The disease impairs cognition, movement, and physical capabilities. People living with severe dementia typically can’t communicate and need help with basic self-care. As the condition progresses, they often lose the ability to sit up and swallow. 

People living with Alzheimer’s disease move through these stages at different rates. On average, people with this condition tend to live between three and 11 years after diagnosis. A healthcare professional can help you and your loved one understand their prognosis. 

What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease? 

Doctors and scientists haven’t fully uncovered the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. However, several factors may contribute to this complex condition, including: 

  • Age-related Changes: As we age, our brains undergo many changes that may damage neurons. These changes can include atrophy in the brain, inflammation, and vascular damage. But not every senior develops Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • Genetics: Some families have genetic risk factors that predispose them to Alzheimer’s disease. Early-onset and late-onset Alzheimer’s have different genetic components. 
  • Vascular Conditions: Diseases that affect the vascular system may impair blood flow in the brain, leading to cognitive decline. Associated conditions include heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. 
  • Lifestyle Factors: People who don’t eat a healthy diet, exercise, or get enough sleep have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Research also suggests that certain groups may have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that two-thirds of people living with this disease are women. Black and Hispanic older adults are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than white people. 

How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosed?

Healthcare providers use several strategies to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease

Doctors typically ask the person experiencing symptoms for a thorough medical history. This history will include overall health, daily routines, behavioral changes, diet, and other relevant information. It’s helpful to accompany your loved one to this appointment so you can share your concerns and fill in missing information. 

The healthcare provider will also perform tests to measure your loved one’s cognitive functioning. These tests evaluate attention, mathematical abilities, memory, language, and problem-solving. 

The doctor may also order blood work, urine tests, and other medical evaluations. These tests can rule out other conditions that may cause symptoms resembling Alzheimer’s disease, such as a urinary tract infection. 

Finally, your loved one may get a brain scan or spinal tap to check for signs of Alzheimer’s disease, such as elevated tau protein levels. 

How Is Alzheimer’s Disease Treated?

Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t have a cure, but there are several treatment options to help manage symptoms. 

Healthcare providers may prescribe cholinesterase inhibitors for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. These prescription medications include donepezil, galantamine, and rivastigmine. They stop the breakdown of the brain chemical acetylcholine, which supports cognitive functioning. Cholinesterase inhibitors can reduce behavioral and cognitive symptoms. 

People with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s may also receive lecanemab. This immunotherapy reduces amyloid plaques in the brain, slowing the rate of cognitive decline. 

Doctors often prescribe memantine for moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. This medication regulates brain chemicals and can improve daily functioning. Healthcare providers may also recommend medications to manage behavioral symptoms, such as antipsychotics. 

Additionally, lifestyle changes can support cognitive health and improve Alzheimer’s symptoms. These changes include increased exercise, a healthy diet, and not smoking. As their condition progresses, many people also move to a memory care home to receive around–the–clock support from healthcare providers. 

How to Reduce the Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s Disease?

There’s no guaranteed way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, certain habits and lifestyle changes may reduce the risk. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults follow these strategies to promote healthy aging and cognitive health: 

  • Stay physically active
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get adequate sleep 
  • Manage diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Avoid smoking and excessive drinking
  • Prevent and treat hearing loss 
  • Eat a nutritious diet 

Brain-challenging activities can also mitigate the risk of cognitive impairment. Consider making crafts, completing puzzles and word searches, and playing games with your loved one to stimulate their mind.  

Support Your Loved One’s Cognitive Health 

No one wants to hear that their loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. However, early detection and diagnosis can help affected people get the treatment and support they need. You may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by assisting your loved one with lifestyle changes. 

You can also enjoy peace of mind by moving your loved one to a senior living community. SRG Senior Living offers compassionate and informed memory care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive conditions. Our residents participate in daily activities that promote connection and well-being. Contact us today to learn more, and explore the rest of our dementia blog posts for more information on Alzheimer’s disease.