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Alzheimers Disease and Memory Loss

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Alzheimers and Memory Loss

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

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.

The core Cognitive Symptoms are generally referred to as “The Four As of Alzheimer's” These include amnesia, apraxia, aphasia and agnosia.

  • 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 stages. 
  • 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 other.  
  • 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. 

Common 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. 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?

Alzheimers and Beta-amyloid plaques

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 medications.  
  • 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 psychological symptoms. 
  • 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.

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