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Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. Approximately 5.4 million Americans have AD. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. The disease is characterized by memory loss, language deterioration, poor judgment, and an indifferent attitude.
Dementia is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. It involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. Healthy brain tissue dies or deteriorates, causing a steady decline in memory and mental abilities.
AD is not the only form of dementia. Doctors diagnose AD by doing tests to eliminate all the other possible reasons for the person’s symptoms. If no other cause is found, usually a diagnosis of AD is given.
AD causes progressive degeneration of the brain. It may start with slight memory loss and confusion but eventually leads to severe, irreversible mental impairment that destroys a person’s ability to remember, reason, learn, and imagine. Usually, family members notice gradual—not sudden—changes in a person with AD.
As AD progresses, symptoms become serious and family members usually seek medical help. Progression from simple forgetfulness to severe dementia might take five to 10 years or longer. People with mild AD may live alone and function fairly well. People with moderate AD may need some type of assistance. People with advanced AD generally require total care.
Think of the way electricity travels along wires from a power source to the point of use. Messages travel through the brain in a similar way, but they are carried by chemicals instead of wires. Information travels through the nerve cells in the brain so we can remember, communicate, think, and perform activities.
Researchers have found that people with AD have lower levels of the chemicals that carry these important messages from one brain cell to another. In addition, people with AD have many damaged or dead nerve cells in areas of the brain that are vital to memory and other mental abilities. Although the person’s mind still contains memories and knowledge, it may be impossible to find and use the information in the brain because of AD.
Abnormal structures called plaques and tangles are another characteristic of AD:
• Plaques. It is believed that plaque deposits form between brain cells early in the disease process.
• Tangles. This refers to the way that brain cells become twisted, causing damage and nerve
These structures block the movement of messages through the brain, causing memory loss, confusion, and
According to the Alzheimer Association, Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in America with one in three seniors dying from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. In advanced AD, people lose the ability to do normal activities and care for their own needs. They may have difficulty eating, going to the bathroom, or taking care of their personal hygiene. They may wander away, get lost, or become injured. They may develop complicated health problems such as pneumonia, infections, falls, and fractures. They
may experience a lack of appetite resulting in weight loss.
There is no cure for AD. Medications are available that may slow the progress of the disease, lessening its symptoms, but they are unable to stop or reverse it. These include tacrine (Cognex), donepezil (Aricept), rivastigamine (Exelon), and galantamine (Reminyl).
Medicines are sometimes ordered to help with symptoms such as sleeplessness, wandering, anxiety, agitation, and depression.
Prevention and research
There is no known way to prevent AD. Researchers continue to look for ways to reduce the risk of this disease.
The person with AD has no control over these symptoms and cannot be held responsible for behavior problems.
It is believed that lifelong mental exercise and learning may create more connections between nerve cells and delay the onset of dementia. People should be encouraged to learn new things and stay mentally active as long as possible.
All persons with AD need unconditional love and constant reassurance, no matter what stage of the disease they are in.