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Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. The greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older. But Alzheimer's is not just a disease of old age. Approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease (also known as early-onset Alzheimer’s).
Alzheimer's worsens over time. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer's, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer's live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.
Symptoms Of Alzheimer
Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we age. Most of us eventually notice some slowed thinking and occasional problems with remembering certain things. However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be a sign that brain cells are failing.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer's is difficulty remembering newly learned information because Alzheimer's changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning. As Alzheimer's advances through the brain it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
People with memory loss or other possible signs of Alzheimer’s may find it hard to recognize they have a problem. Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family members or friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. If you need assistance finding a doctor with experience evaluating memory problems, your local Alzheimer's Association can help. Early diagnosis and intervention methods are improving dramatically, and treatment options and sources of support can improve quality of life.
Two helpful support resources you can tap into are ALZConnected, our messages boards and online social networking community, and Alzheimer's Navigator, a web tool that creates customized action plans, based on answers you provide through short, online surveys.
Causes Of Alzheimer
Scientists believe that for most people, Alzheimer's disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.
Less than 5 percent of the time, Alzheimer's is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease.
Although the causes of Alzheimer's aren't yet fully understood, its effect on the brain is clear. Alzheimer's disease damages and kills brain cells. A brain affected by Alzheimer's disease has many fewer cells and many fewer connections among surviving cells than does a healthy brain.
As more and more brain cells die, Alzheimer's leads to significant brain shrinkage. When doctors examine Alzheimer's brain tissue under the microscope, they see two types of abnormalities that are considered hallmarks of the disease:
Plaques. These clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid may damage and destroy brain cells in several ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication. Although the ultimate cause of brain-cell death in Alzheimer's isn't known, the collection of beta-amyloid on the outside of brain cells is a prime suspect.
Tangles. Brain cells depend on an internal support and transport system to carry nutrients and other essential materials throughout their long extensions. This system requires the normal structure and functioning of a protein called tau.
In Alzheimer's, threads of tau protein twist into abnormal tangles inside brain cells, leading to failure of the transport system. This failure is also strongly implicated in the decline and death of brain cells.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means the symptoms will gradually worsen over time. Alzheimer’s is broken down into seven different stages:
Stage 1: There are no symptoms at this stage, but there might be an early diagnosis based on family history.
Stage 2: The earliest symptoms appear, such as forgetfulness.
Stage 3: Mild physical and mental impairments appear, such as reduced memory and concentration. These may only be noticeable by someone very close to the person.
Stage 4: Alzheimer’s is often diagnosed at this stage, but it’s still considered mild. Memory loss and the inability to perform everyday tasks is evident.
Stage 5: Moderate to severe symptoms require help from loved ones or caregivers.
Stage 6: At this stage, a person with Alzheimer’s may need help with basic tasks, such as eating and putting on clothes.
Stage 7: This is the most severe and final stage of Alzheimer’s. There may be a loss of speech and facial expressions.
Prevention Of Alzheimer
Right now, there's no proven way to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Research into prevention strategies is ongoing. The strongest evidence so far suggests that you may be able to lower your risk of Alzheimer's disease by reducing your risk of heart disease.
Many of the same factors that increase your risk of heart disease can also increase your risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Important factors that may be involved include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, excess weight and diabetes.
The Mediterranean diet a way of eating that emphasizes fresh produce, healthy oils and foods low in saturated fat can lower the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke. This diet has also been associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Keeping active physically, mentally and socially may make your life more enjoyable and may also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease
The only definitive way to diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s disease is to examine their brain tissue after death. But your doctor can use other examinations and tests to assess your mental abilities, diagnose dementia, and rule out other conditions.
They will likely start by taking a medical history. They may ask you about:
- your symptoms
- your family medical history
- other current or past health conditions
- current or past medications
- your diet, alcohol intake, or other lifestyle habits
From there, your doctor will likely do several tests to help determine if you have Alzheimer’s disease.Alzheimers
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