Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a neurological brain disorder named after a German physician, Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906.
“What’s the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?”
We hear that all the time here at the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. It’s a common question, and doctors can sometimes contribute to the confusion. It may be that physicians prefer to use the word “dementia” because the term Alzheimer’s can sound more overwhelming and frightening. But, the terms Alzheimer’s disease and dementia may mean two very different things.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke defines dementia as:
“… [A] word for a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. It is not a specific disease. People with dementia may not be able to think well enough to do normal activities, such as getting dressed or eating. They may lose their ability to solve problems or control their emotions. Their personalities may change. They may become agitated or see things that are not there.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating disease that leads to the death of nerve cells and the loss of tissue throughout the brain. As Alzheimer’s progresses, the patient’s brain tissue shrinks. The chambers (ventricles) in the brain that contain cerebrospinal fluid get larger. This brain damage affects the communication between the brain cells, leading to problems with speech, memory loss, and comprehension. Whether you are concerned about your own memory loss or are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease with a loved one, here is what to look for and how to get help.
Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
Some of the early signs of Alzheimer’s involve changes to short term-memory and speech. The long-term memories are usually still intact with early Alzheimer’s, but the person may forget conversations, repeat questions, and struggle to recall common words. Alzheimer’s can cause confusion such as getting lost in familiar places. Behavioral changes include poor hygiene, mood swings, and showing poor judgement.
If you or a loved one are beginning to exhibit the signs of Alzheimer’s, it is important to seek help from your health care provider right away. While there is not a simple test for the disease, your doctor will rely on memory and behavioral changes along with screening tests that evaluate short-term memory and mental status. If the symptoms are related to Alzheimer’s there are treatments and lifestyle changes that work best when treating the disease early.
The doctor may order a brain scan or perform a neurological exam, which may also rule out any other health problems that may be causing the symptoms such as a stroke or tumor. It is possible that the symptoms could be related to a different and highly treatable issue like a thyroid imbalance.
There is not cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are medications that appear to help maintain mental function and independence. These are most effective when taken in the early stages..
As you age you may notice the normal signs of an aging brain: occasionally forgetting someone’s name or misplacing a set of keys. Dementia is a more serious condition, and its rates increase with age. There are two types of dementia, vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A person’s risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years after age 65. By the age of 85, 25–50% of people exhibit signs of dementia. That is why it is important to take preventive steps to boost your brain health now to reduce your risk for dementia. Certain diseases, conditions, and lifestyle choices can raise your risk factors. People who have cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and diabetes are at an increased risk of both kinds of dementia. If you smoke, drink heavily, have suffered a head injury, or are overweight you are have an increased risk.
If you think you may be at risk for Alzheimer’s follow these ways to boost brain health
Here’s how to boost your brain health through healthy habits.
Get Regular Exercise
Exercise is good for your cardiovascular health and it helps you reduce your risk factors for dementia by helping to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk for diabetes. It also can help increase your mood.
Eat a Mediterranean Diet
A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish. This pattern of eating can protect your brain health as well as your cardiovascular health. Particularly good brain foods and the best foods for men over 40 include walnuts, any kinds of berries, and green leafy vegetables.
Use It or Lose It
You have to keep stimulating your brain. Whether you read, learn new skills, solve puzzles, play or listen to music, keep a hobby, or follow current events, these activities stimulate your brain and delay memory loss.
Get More Sleep
You don’t need us to tell you your brain does not function well after a bad night’s sleep. A study on sleep and Alzheimer’s found that “sleep and neurodegenerative disease may influence each other in many ways.” Chronic sleep deprivation can increase the accumulation of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid, which concentrates in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Psychological factors like depression and stress can negatively affect your aging process. Take steps to manage stress and treat depression. Maintain a good social network because social isolation also contributes to unhealthy brain aging. Join a club or social group, and continue to do things you enjoy.
Are You at Risk?
In addition to following these ways to boost your brain health, having good health care is also important for supporting your brain health. Make sure you receive regular medical checkups and consider having your doctor run the 10 tests for men over 50. Talk to you doctor if you notice any signs of dementia such as getting lost in familiar places, forgetting recent events, repeating questions or statements, loss of balance or repeated falls, confusion, or changes in your language abilities. If you have had any changes in your eating habits, hygiene, or personality, be aware that these are also warning signs of dementia.
How does Alzheimer’s Affect Quality of Life?
Alzheimer’s patients are affected in many ways. The loss of concentration may cause patients to manage basic tasks in their daily life. It may become difficult to:
• balance a checkbook,
• recognize loved ones,
• recognize familiar places, or
• use utensils properly.
As the disease advances, the patient may have problems with balance, incontinence, and the loss of language skills. The lack of coordination, confusion, and loss of memory make activities like driving very dangerous. Family members need to help keep a loved one with Alzheimer’s from getting behind the wheel and provide other transportation. As the disease progresses further, depression is common. Paranoid or violent behavior, even in previously calm individuals, can be caused by the disease.
What Activities Can Help Fight Alzheimer’s?
There are some things that can help, especially early on in treatment. Exercise (like walking) has several benefits. It can help with maintaining muscle strength and coordination, mood, and reducing anxiety. Plus, research shows that people who are most physically active are the least likely to get Alzheimer’s.
Eating a healthy diet is very important in both preventing and dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. It is key to managing early stages of the disease. Studies show that following a Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk for Alzheimer’s. A Mediterranean diet is rich in healthy oils, vegetables, nuts, and fish. These are all among the best foods to eat for men over 50.
A study at UCLA found that people with brain-scan confirmed patterns of early Alzheimer’s can make noticeable improvements in memory and cognitive function by making dramatic lifestyle changes. Ten patients avoided simple carbohydrates, gluten, and processed foods. They increased their intake of fish, did yoga, and meditated. They also took melatonin, got adequate sleep, and took vitamin D-3, fish oil, and vitamin B-12. Nine patients in the early stage of disease had great results, but the tenth patient with more advanced Alzheimer’s did not benefit. Some patients still experienced the memory improvements at a follow-up two and a half years later. Plans for larger studies on this therapeutic program are underway.
If you are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease because you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, it is also important to remember to take care of yourself, too. It is very emotionally and physically demanding to care for a person with Alzheimer’s, especially if that person is a loved one who no longer recognizes you. The common signs of caregiver stress include difficulty sleeping, having a hard time concentrating, headaches, back pain, anger, sadness, or mood swings. There are caregiver support groups you can find through the Alzheimer’s Association. Do things for yourself to help prevent burnout. Keep up your hobbies and stay in touch with friends and supportive people you can talk to.
If you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, you will have a lot more responsibility in planning meals, transportation, and taking care of financial issues. Things that can help your loved one maintain some independence is to label cabinets, use sticky notes as reminders, and use a weekly pill box for medications. It is also important to understand that the sun setting at night can cause people with Alzheimer’s to feel distressed. You can help by closing the drapes or blinds before sunset and keeping the house well lit. Hiring a home health care aide to assist with hygiene and daily tasks can help.
Before your loved one is in advanced stages, keep him or her involved with making important decisions about health care, financial management, and end-of-life care. Contact an attorney about writing up an advanced directive.
At some point your loved one may need to move to an assisted living facility with an Alzheimer’s special care unit. People with advanced Alzheimer’s may no longer be able to talk, walk, or even swallow. Hospice care can provide comfort in this time.
Alzheimer’s disease progresses differently in different people. Some people experience more gradual changes while others move on to severe memory loss and confusion within just a few years. On average, the length of survival after being diagnosed is three to nine years, but some people can live for 20 years. The key to dealing with Alzheimer’s disease is get help and start making changes in the early stages of the disease.