Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. Named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer who in 1906 noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After her death, Dr. Alzheimer examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (not called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (not called neurofibrillary, or tau tangles).
These plaques and tangles in the brain are considered some of the main features of the disease along with the loss of connections between nerve cells in the brain.
Mild Alzheimer’s Disease
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, people experience greater memory loss and other cognitive difficulties. Problems can include wandering and getting lost, trouble handling money and paying bills, repeating questions, taking longer to complete normal daily tasks, and personality and behavior changes. People are often diagnosed in this stage.
Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease
In this stage, damage occurs in areas of the brain that control language, reasoning, sensory processing, and conscious thought. Memory loss and confusion grow worse, and people begin to have problems recognizing family and friends. They may be unable to learn new things, carry out multi-step tasks such as getting dressed, or cope with new situations. In addition, people at this stage may have hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia and may show impulsive behavior.
Severe Alzheimer’s Disease
Ultimately, plaques and tangles spread throughout the brain, and brain tissue significantly shrinks. People with severe Alzheimer’s cannot communicate and are completely dependent on others for their care. Near the end of life, the person may be in bed most or all of the time as the body shuts down.
Research suggests that a host of factors beyond genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a great deal of interest, for example, in the relationship between cognitive decline and vascular conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Ongoing research will help us understand whether risk factors for these conditions may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
A nutritious diet, physical activity, social engagement, and mentally stimulating pursuits have all been associated with helping people stay healthy as they age. These factors might also help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials are testing some of these possibilities.
Beginning treatment early in the disease process may help preserve daily functioning for some time, even though the underlying disease process cannot be stopped or reversed. An early diagnosis also helps families plan for the future. They can take care of financial and legal matters, address potential safety issues, learn about living arrangements, and develop support networks.
In addition, an early diagnosis gives people greater opportunities to participate in clinical trials that are testing possible new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or other research studies.
Alzheimer’s disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5.5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million.
Want to get involved and raise awareness and money to fight Alzheimer’s?
The 2018 Wilmington Walk to End Alzheimer’s will be held on November 3 at Wrightsville Beach Park. They will also be hosting a kick off party at Waterman’s Brewing on Thursday, October 4 for an evening of fun, food, and inspiration. Visit their website for more information on how you can participate.