This is stating the obvious: Alzheimer’s disease is terrible, and no one should ever have to deal with it. Whether you fear a loved one is showing signs of Alzheimer’s or they’ve received a diagnosis, you may be confused, scared, and not sure what to expect. We have rounded up 10 essential facts about Alzheimer’s disease to offer some understanding of what the condition entails. Below are the first five, in next week's blog we'll cover the other five.
- Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive condition that destroys a person’s memory and other important mental (and eventually physical) functions.
This disease is the most common cause of dementia, which describes a group of brain disorders that erode a person’s cognitive abilities and communication skills.
If someone has Alzheimer’s, they typically experience mild confusion and difficulty remembering things to start, but eventually they may forget important people in their lives; undergo dramatic personality changes; have trouble planning, communicating, and making safe decisionsy and need full-time care.
- Alzheimer’s progresses through five stages, and the first one doesn’t cause any symptoms at all.
This first stage is called preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. People in this stage don’t exhibit any outward symptoms of the condition, but they are undergoing brain changes that will induce signs of Alzheimer’s down the line. Although symptoms aren’t apparent at this point, experts are working on developing innovative brain imaging technology that might be able to pick up on signs of the condition at this stage.
After preclinical Alzheimer’s, which can last for years, a person develops what’s called mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease. This involves confusion, trouble making decisions, and issues remembering things such as recent conversations or upcoming appointments, but not at a severe enough level for it to really affect a person’s job or relationships.
The following phase is
due to Alzheimer’s disease. This is when symptoms become apparent enough that they often lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. At this point, Alzheimer’s is affecting a person’s day-to-day life with symptoms such as noticeable short-term memory loss, trouble with problem-solving, poor decision-making, mood changes, losing items, getting lost themselves (even in familiar locations), and having a hard time expressing themselves. This can translate into the person asking the same question repeatedly because they forget the answer, a difficult time handling what used to be manageable responsibilities (like tracking their budget), and irritability or anger as their world begins to shift in confounding ways.
This eventually progresses into moderate dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, which is essentially an intensifying of symptoms. A person with this stage of Alzheimer’s tends to need more care making it through the day and avoiding dangerous situations, such as becoming lost (wandering around to find a familiar setting is common in this stage). This is also when long-term memory becomes more compromised, so a person with this level of Alzheimer’s may begin to forget who their loved ones are or get them confused with each other.
Lastly, during severe dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, a person may be unable to communicate coherently, even if they are physically able to speak. As they lose control over physical functions such as walking, holding their head up, and bladder and bowel activity, they may depend on others to care for them. People with this final stage of Alzheimer’s may also have difficulty swallowing. Sadly, this is often how death from Alzheimer’s can come about. Food or drinks can wind up in the lungs due to impaired swallowing, leading to pneumonia, or a person may become dehydrated or malnourished.
There’s no set amount of time it takes for every person with Alzheimer’s to advance through each of these stages, but the Mayo Clinic notes that people with the condition live eight to 10 years after diagnosis on average.
- Normal forgetfulness is a thing, and it’s very different from Alzheimer’s-related memory loss.
It’s completely fine to occasionally forget where you put things, the names of people you don’t see that often, why you entered a room, and other minor details. Memory lapses can happen for all sorts of reasons, from a lack of sleep to normal cognitive changes as you grow older.
Mild forgetfulness is a common complaint in people as they age. The main difference between age-related memory loss and dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease) is that in normal aging, the forgetfulness does not interfere with your ability to carry on with daily activities. The memory lapses have little impact on your daily life.
If you or a loved one is dealing with persistent memory loss and accompanying symptoms such as difficulty staying organized, confusion, and mood changes, that’s more of a cause for concern.
- Alzheimer’s affects millions of people in the United States, causing over 110,000 deaths each year.
Estimates range, but the National Institute on Aging (NIA) says that more than 5.5 million people in the United States have the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was the sixth leading cause of death in the United States in 2017, killing 116,103 people.
- Doctors aren’t totally sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but brain changes are definitely involved.
Alzheimer’s disease damages and kills brain cells. This destruction is what affects a person’s cognitive, social, and physical abilities.
Researchers have also discovered two specific abnormalities in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. One is that they have plaques, or buildup of a protein called beta-amyloid, that may harm brain cells, including by impeding cell-to-cell communication. Another is tangles in the transportation system that brain cells rely on to move nutrients and other substances that are necessary for your brain to function properly.
For more information on Alzheimer's care for a loved one, contact Spring Arbor.