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. Last week we discussed the first 5
- There’s also a genetic component for some people, especially those with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease happens when a person develops the condition anywhere from their 30s to mid-60s, according to the NIA. People with this early-onset form comprise less than 10 percent of the Alzheimer’s population. These cases are sometimes due to three specific gene mutations or other genetic factors. However, this kind of genetic influence is only involved in less than 5 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases overall, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Late-onset Alzheimer’s (which is much more common and typically shows up in someone’s mid-60s) mainly arises due to age and brain changes. Genetics are sometimes involved, but much more rarely than in a person who starts exhibiting symptoms when they’re younger.
- Experts have pinpointed certain risk factors that increase your odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Getting older is the biggest one, the Mayo Clinic says. To be clear, Alzheimer’s isn’t just a regular part of aging that everyone should expect, but it’s much more common in people over 65. This is part of why women seem to be at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease—they simply tend to live longer.
Having a first-degree relative (like a dad or sister) with the disease also seems to raise your risk. This is due to that genetic component, which doctors are still investigating.
Another potential factor: past head trauma, like a concussion. In general, head injuries can result in less brain [matter] because an accompanying brain injury can occur. Less brain means less ability for the brain to age gracefully.
There’s also a surprising potential link between heart disease risk factors and those that contribute to your chances of getting Alzheimer’s. For example, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, obesity, and poorly controlled type 2 diabetes can increase your risk of developing both conditions. This may be because of a health issue called vascular dementia, which is when impaired blood vessels in the brain cause memory and cognitive difficulties.
In addition, Down syndrome is one of the strongest risk factors for one day developing Alzheimer’s, and symptoms tend to present 10 to 20 years earlier than they do in the general population. The Down/Alzheimer’s link may center around having an extra copy of chromosome 21, which is what brings about characteristics of Down syndrome. This extra chromosome material contains the gene that produces those beta-amyloid plaques that can harm brain cells, the NIA explains.
- Doctors can’t definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s without looking at a person’s brain, but they know enough about the symptoms to tell when someone has it.
The only current test to absolutely confirm Alzheimer’s involves a microscopic exam of a deceased person’s brain to look for those plaques and tangles. Although tests to confirm whether or not a living person has Alzheimer’s seem to be forthcoming, they’re not yet ready for widespread use.
Instead, doctors basically make an extremely educated guess. They do this with strategies like ordering blood tests to rule out other causes of memory loss, administering mental status tests to evaluate a person’s thinking and memory, ordering brain imaging such as an MRI or CT scan, and testing a person’s cerebrospinal fluid for biological markers that can point toward the possibility of Alzheimer’s.
- There’s no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but certain lifestyle factors could reduce your risk.
Research has found a link between engaging in socially and mentally stimulating activities and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It seems as though these types of activities strengthen your “cognitive reserve,” making it easier for your brain to compensate for age-related changes.
Reducing your risk of heart disease may also help lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. Things that promote a healthy body will promote a healthy brain. In this case, healthier blood vessels are less likely to become damaged and more likely to support the brain. Lowering your risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s means staying active and eating well, among other things. Exercise may slow existing cognitive deterioration by stabilizing older brain connections and helping to make new connections. Experts are also investigating if exercise can bolster the size of brain structures that are key for memory and learning. In any case, the American Heart Association recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week or 75 minutes of vigorous movement (or a mix of moderate and vigorous workouts) each week.
The Mediterranean diet, which focuses on eating produce, healthy oils, and foods low in saturated fat, has also been linked with a lowered risk of developing heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Does this mean you have to overhaul the way you currently eat in order to avoid Alzheimer’s? No. It only means that scientists have studied one specific way of eating enough to land on this result. Healthy eating looks different for different people, and a lot of this can depend on your culture too. The point is really to eat in a way that helps to reinforce your body and mind, not that you need to follow any one type of way for optimal health.
- There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are treatment options to help with symptoms.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two types of medications to help manage the memory loss, confusion, and problems with thinking and reasoning of Alzheimer's disease.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are reserved for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. It seems as though they impede the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical implicated in memory and thinking, but these drugs may start to work less effectively as Alzheimer’s progresses and a person produces less acetylcholine.
When it comes to moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, doctors may use a drug called memantine, which appears to regulate glutamate, a neurotransmitter that can cause brain cell death in large amounts. Sometimes doctors prescribe both cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine drugs, since they work in different ways.
Unfortunately, these drugs won’t fully stop the progression of the disease. But they may help slow the symptoms so that a person with Alzheimer’s can have a better quality of life for a longer period of time.