What do we know about Alzheimer’s disease?

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Alzheimer’s disease usually occurs late in life.

There is no test to use for a diagnosis. There is no sure way to prevent it and there is no effective way to slow down the process. It is a disease that effects millions of Americans and we should consider some things that might prevent it, medications that might be useful for Alzheimer’s, and how to live with a loved one who has this disease.

Alzheimer’s disease causes damage in the brain. The brain shrinks and brain cells die. The disease is progressive, in that it gradually worsens. It usually begins when a person is in their 80s. The early signs may be subtle. These signs include forgetting recent events or forgetting comments others have made. The memory problem gradually worsens so the there is severe loss of memory and the person cannot function in everyday tasks.

The next symptoms after memory loss include asking a question repetitively, forgetting events, misplacing possessions, forgetting names of family. At first these problems may be uncommon, and just appear to be the usual symptoms of growing older. Gradually the person becomes disabled by his or her confusion. The ability to drive is affected and later the person cannot find his way about the house or yard. Later, depression and social withdrawal may be seen, distrust of others and general irritability.

When a doctor suspects Alzheimer’s disease, a CT scan or MRI of the brain may be ordered. In fact, the doctors are usually looking for another cause for the symptoms such as tumor or stroke. If there is no other abnormality the imaging tests may be negative. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the brain shows shrinkage that may show up on a PET scan.

The cause of Alzheimer’s is hard to determine. Experts suggest that lifestyle factors, genetics, and environmental factors may cause it. The damage is to the brain cells themselves, and cells are replaced by plaques.

Plaques are formed from a protein called amyloid. Even though they know this, scientists do not know the mechanisms involved. If the cause of this disease is not known, how might we prevent it? Risk factors are the lifestyle habits that may cause problems with many diseases.

An example is the risk factors for heart attacks. They include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, smoking, excessive alcohol, and inactivity. It turns out that these same risk factors may lead to Alzheimer’s disease. The risk factors for Alzheimer’s also include advanced age and relatives with the disease.

Depression, alcoholism, and various types of mental illness may make early Alzheimer’s disease hard to diagnose. The pandemic may have made our mental state a little unbalanced over the recent year. It is important to try to enhance your lifestyle, see friends, go shopping. Getting out of the house has always been important, but now it is especially important. Exercise is beneficial and it is a perfect combination with visiting neighbors, getting a dog to walk, or visiting a nearby park.

Next month we will explore possible treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and also how to handle these patients in your home.

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