Alzheimer’s Disease

In the United States, someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease every 66 seconds, which accounts for more than 5 million cases annually and makes AD the 6th leading cause of death. At a global scale, Alzheimer’s affects 44 million people every year and is responsible for more deaths than prostate and breast cancer combined. Ever since the year 2000, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease has grown by a whopping 90% and experts forecast even higher rates for the following years. In less than two decades, AD has become the greatest biomedical challenge of the 21st century for patients, researchers and caregivers alike.

 

Alzheimer’s Disease Overview & Facts

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder, a type of dementia that accounts for approximately 70% of all dementia cases. AD affects patients’ memory and cognitive abilities, lowering the quality of daily life until it ultimately leads to death. Although it is commonly associated with old age, it doesn’t occur only in patients over 65; sometimes, early-onset Alzheimer’s is noticeable in younger patients and it can take up to 7 years for the symptoms to become obvious to friends and family. Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, meaning that the symptoms get worse over time. There are three stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which can unfold over a period of 4 to 20 years:

  • Mild stage (early-onset Alzheimer’s): the symptoms are mild, sometimes even unnoticeable. The patient experiences occasional memory lapses and moments of confusion, but they can still function in society, work and drive.
  • Middle stage: symptoms of AD become obvious, not only to close friends and family but also to co-workers and acquaintances. Routine tasks become more difficult to perform and at this point, the patient will require a greater level of care to improve the quality of daily life. The middle stage is the longest stage of Alzheimer’s disease and can go on for years.
  • Late stage: this is where the most severe form of the disease sets it. The patient loses their memory and cognitive skills almost entirely and becomes unable to recognize their closest relatives. They cannot walk, talk and swallow, failing to respond to environmental stimuli. In this final stage, 24/7 surveillance is critical.

Alzheimer’s survival rate varies and patients can live with the disease for up to 2 decades. However, this rate depends on several factors, such as lifestyle, age, the stage at which AD was diagnosed, available treatment and care, financial possibilities.

 

Alzheimer's Disease on the rise

 

 

Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms & Diagnosis

Because some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease also occur in healthy aging individuals, the early onset of AD can go unnoticed. However, it’s important to point out that effects of aging on memory and the brain are only temporary and they do not get worse in time. Misplacing objects, forgetting details, confusing dates and times are all normal effects of aging, whereas Alzheimer’s symptoms are more complex:

  • Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are quite subtle and they can generally be noticed only by close friends and family who know the patient very well. The patient has small episodes of forgetfulness, but he doesn’t remember them when they pass. In these episodes, he might not be able to remember the names of family members and they experience confusion in an unfamiliar situation. At the workplace, the patient finds it harder to concentrate, make plans or think in abstract terms.
  • In the middle stage of Alzheimer’s, the symptoms gradually get worse and the episodes of forgetfulness and confusion are more frequent. The patient will start to have irregular sleeping patterns, they will find it hard to assimilate new information and they will even get lost in familiar places.
  • In the final stage, the symptoms of AD become severe. As moments of lucidity become rarer, the patient starts to display anxious behavior to the point of paranoia. They have trouble speaking, are not able to think clearly and they need a caretaker because they are no longer able to do simple tasks such as dressing or eating.

Accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease requires meticulous medical assessment. More often than not, elderly people are referred to specialists because they experience memory loss, but that doesn’t always indicate AS. Moreover, it’s important to remember that there isn’t just one Alzheimer’s test, but a series of assessments, including the patient’s medical history, mood testing, brain imaging, complete blood tests and a neurological exam. All these tests are done to rule out other forms of dementia. The earlier AD is diagnosed, the higher the chances to keep symptoms under control.

 

Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment & Care

One of the reasons why this is such as challenging medical condition is that there is no Alzheimer’s cure. Currently, medical treatments cannot heal AD, although medical institutions allocate huge budgets to Alzheimer’s research. However, patients can benefit from a series of treatments that help them manage the disorder and enjoy momentary relief from symptoms. Medical Alzheimer’s treatment includes five types of medications that combat the loss of cholinergic neurons. However, they have minimal impact on disease progression. They are complemented by psychosocial intervention and emotion-oriented therapies that stimulate the patient’s senses, helping them stay connected to reality. Friends and family members are encouraged to include the patient in social activities, surround him with love, care, and understanding or get him a pet, because this elevates his mood and provides emotional support.

 

As the disease progresses, the need for professional Alzheimer’s care becomes essential. The family should hire a caregiver or send the patient to a nursing home where someone can supervise him constantly. In the final stages, the patient needs round the clock assistance to eat, stand up, get dressed and walk. This prevents additional complications of Alzheimer’s disease, such as malnutrition, poor hygiene, fractures, or infections.

 

Living with Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s is a chronical medical condition that takes a toll on the patient’s health and well-being, but, as new research sheds light on potential therapies, patients are taught that they can live with Alzheimer’s for many years until they become bedridden.

 

Living with Alzheimer’s is possible and patients don’t have to face it alone. When diagnosed early and managed with medical care and lifestyle changes, AD can be kept under control. In the best cases, patients can live with symptoms for 10 years or more as active members of society. The care of the loved ones, combined with medical therapies and rigorous physician assessments can do wonders for the patient’s state of mind. Although from the middle stage on, the patient might have to quit their job, their lifestyle can be adapted.

 

Public awareness campaigns and the media also help people live with Alzheimer’s and understand that it is not a death sentence. At the same time, movies like Still Alice, Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me and books like The 36-Hour Day provide insight on the challenges of this disease and can help the friends and families of Alzheimer’s patients understand what their loved ones are going through.

 

Early Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

 

Alzheimer’s Disease Research

At present, Alzheimer’s research is a priority in the biomedical field. In 2016, the budget for Alzheimer’s research was supplemented by $350 million and these figures are expected to grow in the following years. Current research directions are focused on finding new therapies to slow down disease progression even more, but also at understanding what causes it and how it can be prevented. Also, efforts are being made to develop cutting-edge early diagnosis biochemical tests.

 

What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s causes are mostly unknown. Apart from the 5% of cases where Alzheimer’s has generic causes, scientists do not know what causes Alzheimer’s. There are, however, several hypotheses: the Cholinergic hypothesis, the Amyloid hypothesis and the Tau hypothesis. Also, some researchers say that the disease can also be caused by Alzheimer’s risk factors such as smoking and air pollution, although results are inconclusive.

 

Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention

As people become more and more aware of the physical and financial challenges of Alzheimer’s disease, one general concern arises: how can I prevent Alzheimer’s? The causes of the disease being almost completely unknown, Alzheimer’s prevention is not as accurate as we would want, but still, scientist point out that the following ways to prevent Alzheimer’s could work:

  • Medication: long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs has been linked to lower risk of AD. On the other hand, hormone replacement therapy.
  • Lifestyle changes: physical exercise may prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and intellectually engaging activities may reduce risks as well. Learning one or more languages, playing chess and board games, reading, playing an instrument and engaging in social activities could also delay AD.
  • A balanced diet. Japan and the Mediterranean region have the lowest rates of Alzheimer’s, leading scientists to believe that their diets may decrease the risk of AD. Certain foods such as cocoa, coffee, red wine (consumed in moderation!) have also been linked to risk reduction, but the evidence is limited and more research is needed. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that people whose diets consist mostly of saturated fat and carbohydrates have a higher risk of developing AD.
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