Many of us have heard of Alzheimer’s dis­ease but may not know much more than it is a dis­ease that caus­es mem­o­ry loss.  Experts sug­gest that more than 6 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, most of them age 65 or old­er, may have demen­tia caused by Alzheimer’s.  This dis­ease is cur­rent­ly ranked as the sixth lead­ing cause of death in the Unit­ed States, but recent esti­mates indi­cate the dis­or­der may rank third, just behind heart dis­ease and can­cer as a cause of death for old­er people.

Alzheimer’s dis­ease is a pro­gres­sive brain dis­or­der that slow­ly destroys mem­o­ry and think­ing skills, and even­tu­al­ly, the abil­i­ty to car­ry out the sim­plest tasks. Changes in the brain may begin a decade or more before symp­toms appear. Dur­ing this very ear­ly stage of Alzheimer’s, tox­ic changes are tak­ing place in the brain.  Pre­vi­ous­ly healthy neu­rons stop func­tion­ing, lose con­nec­tions with oth­er neu­rons, and die.

Signs and symp­toms of Alzheimer’s disease

Mem­o­ry prob­lems are typ­i­cal­ly one of the first signs of cog­ni­tive impair­ment relat­ed to Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s dis­ease pro­gress­es in sev­er­al stages: ear­ly, mild (some­times called mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment), mod­er­ate, and severe.

In the Ear­ly stage, a per­son begins to expe­ri­ence mem­o­ry loss and oth­er cog­ni­tive dif­fi­cul­ties, though the symp­toms appear grad­ual to the per­son and their family.

Dur­ing the Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment(MCI), stage dam­age occurs in areas of the brain that con­trol lan­guage, rea­son­ing, sen­so­ry pro­cess­ing, and con­scious thought. Con­di­tions such as dia­betes, depres­sion, and stroke may increase a person’s risk for MCI.

Some of the signs of MCI include:

  • Los­ing things often
  • For­get­ting to go to events or appointments
  • Hav­ing more trou­ble com­ing up with words than oth­er peo­ple of the same age

MCI can be man­aged by see­ing a doc­tor or spe­cial­ist every 6 to 12 months.  A doc­tor can help track any changes in mem­o­ry and think­ing skills over time.  Peo­ple with MCI might also con­sid­er par­tic­i­pat­ing in clin­i­cal tri­als or studies.

The Mod­er­ate stage of Alzheimer’s dis­ease requires more inten­sive super­vi­sion and care becomes necessary.

Symp­toms may include:

  • Increased mem­o­ry loss and confusion
  • Inabil­i­ty to learn new things
  • Dif­fi­cul­ty with speech and prob­lems read­ing, writ­ing and work­ing with numbers
  • Dif­fi­cul­ty orga­niz­ing thoughts and log­i­cal thinking
  • Short­ed atten­tion span
  • Prob­lems cop­ing with new situations
  • Dif­fi­cul­ty car­ry­ing out mul­ti­step tasks, such as get­ting dressed
  • Prob­lems rec­og­niz­ing fam­i­ly and friends
  • Hal­lu­ci­na­tions, delu­sions, and paranoia
  • Impul­sive behavior
  • Inap­pro­pri­ate out­bursts of anger
  • Rest­less­ness, agi­ta­tion, anx­i­ety, wan­der­ing in the late after­noon or evening
  • Repet­i­tive state­ments or movement

Peo­ple with Severe Alzheimer’s can­not com­mu­ni­cate and are com­plete­ly depen­dent on oth­ers for care.  The per­son may also be in the bed most or all the time as the body shuts down.

Symp­toms often include:

  • Inabil­i­ty to communicate
  • Weight loss
  • Seizures
  • Skin infec­tions
  • Dif­fi­cul­ty swallowing
  • Groan­ing, moan­ing, or grunting
  • Increased sleep­ing
  • Loss of bow­el and blad­der control

How is Alzheimer’s dis­ease treated?

Cur­rent­ly, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, though there are med­i­cines that can help treat the symp­toms of the dis­ease.  Most med­i­cines work best for peo­ple in the ear­ly or mid­dle stages of Alzheimer’s. Researchers are explor­ing oth­er drug ther­a­pies and oth­er inter­ven­tions to delay or pre­vent the dis­ease as well as treat its symp­toms.  Some of those include phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, diet, cog­ni­tive train­ing, and a com­bi­na­tion of these.

Alzheimer’s is com­plex and it is there­fore unlike­ly that any one drug or oth­er inter­ven­tion will suc­cess­ful­ly treat it in all peo­ple liv­ing with the dis­ease.  It is impor­tant to talk to your doc­tor if you expe­ri­ence any signs or symp­toms of the dis­ease so that appro­pri­ate med­ical tests can be con­duct­ed.  This will not only give you peace of mind but will help you and your fam­i­ly pre­pare for the future.

The jour­ney typ­i­cal­ly lasts for years and for most of that time, peo­ple liv­ing with Alzheimer’s can still enjoy the same things they always have.  Instead of focus­ing on what is lost, focus on what remains.  Peo­ple still enjoy beau­ty and feel emo­tions long after los­ing the abil­i­ty to store short-term mem­o­ries. Rec­og­nize each moment as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to help your loved one expe­ri­ence the joys of life.