Alzheimer's disease, first identified in 1906, is
a progressive, degenerative brain disorder. Alzheimer's effects nerve
cells within the brain, causing memory loss, inhibiting language skills
and leading to broad behavioral changes. While Alzheimer's is NOT
considered a normal part of the aging process, it is the number one
cause of dementia in the elderly. The rarest form of the disease,
Familial Alzheimer's Disease (FAD) appears to be passed genetically.
It's onset occurs between the ages of 30 – 60 and it accounts for 5 –
10% of all cases. Sporadic Alzheimer's Disease is much more widespread
and onset typically occurs after the age of 65. Because it attacks the
brain, Alzheimer's and memory are inextricably linked.
What are Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms
Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease can be broken into
two groups: cognitive and psychiatric. The distinction is important
when considering treatments, as behavioral issues stemming from reduced
cognitive function should not be addressed with psychiatric treatments.
core Cognitive Symptoms are generally referred to as “The
Four As of Alzheimer's” These include amnesia, apraxia, aphasia and
Amnesia is simply defined as memory loss. In
the case of Alzheimer's, short-term memory is affected first. These
memories are primarily stored in the temporal lobe, unlike long-term
memories which live in an expansive network of nerve cells throughout
the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain.
Apraxia is the breakdown of motor skills. Basic
motor skills are affected early on while simpler instinctive tasks like
swallowing and breathing can also become impaired in the disease's end
Aphasia is characterized by an inability to
communicate. With Expressive Aphasia, one loses the ability to speak
and write while Receptive Aphasia affects incoming communication, one's
understanding of other people's words, whether written or spoken. The
onset of these symptoms may occur simultaneously or one may precede the
Agnosia occurs when sensory input becomes
significantly impaired. This is perhaps the most unsettling symptom for
the friends and family as familiar faces and objects no longer spark
recognition. Agnosia can further impair visceral sensations such as
pain or the need to urinate.
Psychiatric symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease include
depression, personality changes, auditory and/or visual hallucinations
and delusions. Irritability, anxiety, paranoia, intentional isolation,
and withdrawal can accompany these symptoms. Not all patients suffer
psychiatric symptoms, however those who do will exhibit increased
behavioral problems. Anti-psychotic and antidepressant medications can
greatly reduce psychiatric symptoms.
Aboutalz.org with funding by the Metlife Foundation has created a number of great
videos on Alzheimer's Disease. This video, first in the series of
five, clearly explains the progress of
Alzheimer's as it works its way through a person's brain.
What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?
The definitive cause of Alzheimer's Disease is yet
unknown, however researchers believe that a group risk-factors can
increase the likelihood of a person's chances of contracting the
disease. Age, genetics, environmental factors, previous head injury and
exposure to toxic free radicals may all play a part in creating the
necessary physical environment for Alzheimer's to attack. On a
physiological level, Alzheimer's Disease is characterized by lesions on
the brain. These lesions (seen here), consist of Beta-amyloid plaques and
neurofibrillary tangles within the brain and can only be identified in an
autopsy after death. It is unknown if the lesions are Alzheimer's cause
or merely a result of the disease.
Clinicians have identified seven Alzheimer's
Disease stages ranging from Normal Function to Severe. Accurate
diagnosis is most likely to occur in Stage Four where short-term memory
has been significantly impacted and complex cognitive tasks have become
difficult to manage without help. Alzheimer's progression varies
greatly. The Mild to Moderate stages can last 2-10 years while the end
stages average 1-5 years.
Clinicians can now diagnose Alzheimer's disease
with great accuracy despite the fact that there is no definitive test
for Alzheimer's. “Probable” Alzheimer's Disease is diagnosed using a
full medical history, lab tests, brain scans and neurological tests.
Rather than testing for Alzheimer's, these tests are designed to rule
out other possible causes of dementia and memory-loss.
Prevention and Treatment of Alzheimer's Disease
Are you worried about Alzheimer's disease and memory loss?
Does someone you love is suffer from it?
Well...the good news is there are things you can do
to minimize your chances of getting the disease and things you can do
to slow the progression of the condition. We'll look at some
of those things here:
Diet: For both prevention and treatment of
Alzheimer's disease, a well-balanced nutrient-rich diet is recommended.
In numerous studies, those with diets high in Omega 3 fatty acids as
well as B, C, D and E vitamins consistently scored higher on mental
acuity tests. Feeding the brain these essential nutrients may well be a
key to preventing Alzheimer's and slowing the progression of the
disease. Trans Fats should be avoided whenever possible.
Vitamins/Supplements: While one should always
strive to incorporate the necessary vitamins into their daily meals,
supplements are a great way to be sure you're getting what your body
needs. B Complex vitamins, along with C, D and E have been shown to
improve cognitive function. Ginko Biloba is another supplement linked
to memory and suggested to slow the progress of Alzheimer's. All
supplements should however be discussed with a doctor for patients
currently being treated for Alzheimer's disease as they may interact
with certain medications.
Sleep: Sleep disturbances are common and impact
memory loss as deep (REM) sleep is crucial for the consolidation of
memories. Seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is optimal and
should be encouraged both for prevention and treatment. Those with mild
to severe Alzheimer's frequently experience periods of late-night
wakefulness accompanied by an agitated state, referred to as
“Sundowners”. Treatment includes discouraging daytime napping, adding
mild exercise to the daily routine and mood stabilizing
Exercise - A reasonable level of exercise
should be encouraged for prevention and treatment of the disease.
Exercise has been linked to improved cognitive function in healthy
people and a slowing of progress for those already diagnosed with the
disease. Studies have found that moderate exercise in Alzheimer's
patients improves mobility, reduces agitation and aggression.
Medication - Treatments for Alzheimer's disease
include a variety of medications and behavioral therapies. Aricept,
Exelon and Razadyne are the most widely used medicines for mild to
moderate Alzheimer's disease. Namenda is also used to slow the
advancement of the disease. These medications are often used in
combination along with antidepressants and anti-psychotics to relieve
Alternative Treatments – Both acupuncture and
massage have been used alongside traditional methods as part of a
comprehensive treatment plan. Acupuncture appears to lessen the
depression and anxiety commonly associated with Alzheimer's. Massage
Therapy may address the same issues as well as increasing alertness and
body awareness while reducing the effects of isolation and confusion.
Despite encouraging results from a handful of studies, more research
into the possible benefits of these alternative treatments is needed.