Alzheimer disease For seniors and their families, even the mention of dementia can be terrifying. It’s important to understand what Alzheimer’s is before jumping to conclusions. Understanding the condition and what can be done about it empowers families to make better choices.
While dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are terms often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences. Read on to learn about how Alzheimer’s is different from related dementias as well as its causes, symptoms, stages, and tips for prevention.
What Causes Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer disease is not a normal part of the ageing process, and scientists aren’t sure why it affects some people and not others. Alzheimer’s isn’t exclusively a disease of seniors. There are cases where symptoms appear in the patients ’40s and ’50s, but the overwhelming majority of people living with Alzheimer’s disease are over the age of 65.
The causes and contributing factors are not firmly understood. Some lifestyle factors may contribute to the onset, but it seems relatively clear that risk increases with age and particularly if there is a history of dementia in the family. People of all backgrounds and genders are affected by the condition, although women are more likely to have the disease. The average lifespan of an individual with Alzheimer disease is about nine years.
The exact causes of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are still being determined. Neurons – the biological cells of the brain – are slowly being damaged and destroyed over time, and the body is unable to reverse this on its own. The human brain is robust; the damage can build up for some time before symptoms begin to manifest themselves.
As the damage increases, so too do the symptoms become worse. Scientists use scans of the brain to view the damage. They can see a building up of proteins in the areas of the brain being damaged. Between the cells appear what is called ‘Plaque,’ a sticky buildup of these proteins. The inside of cells have ‘Tangles,’ which are very small cotton-candy like buildups of different proteins.
Ageing brains all have some of these two buildups, but it is clear that they become dramatically worse in Alzheimer’s disease patients. The challenge scientists face is understanding the cause of this buildup, how to prevent it, and how to reverse buildup that has already taken place.
Alzheimer disease Symptoms
The Symptoms may develop differently from person to person, but they are characterized as being persistent, and get worse over time :
- Minor/Major memory loss
- Difficulties in planning, solving problems, and performing daily tasks
- Becoming disoriented easily
- Problems with vision including determining distances, words on a page, or colours
- Challenges with vocabulary, such as difficulty expressing oneself in speech or print and jumbling or confusing words
- Losing / Misplacing things in unusual places and/or accusing others of taking them
- Mood changes resulting in becoming upset easily, depression/anxiety, loss of motivation or social withdrawal
- Difficulty focusing
- Feelings of frustration or confusion, especially at night
- Getting lost easily
- Physical changes like poor coordination or an odd gait
- Inability to recognize loved ones
The list isn’t exhaustive, but it is enough to bring anyone to a specialist to be screened.
7 Stages of Alzheimer Disease
If you have a loved one with Alzheimer disease, it’s helpful to become familiar with the stages of the disease in order to plan for the best level of care possible with each stage. This will also help you prepare emotionally for the challenges that lie ahead.[vi]
Stage 1: Normal Behavior
During the first stage, you will likely not notice any changes in outward behaviour. In fact, the only way to detect the disease is with a PET scan, which can show how the brain is working.
Stage 2: Mild Noticeable Changes
In stage two, you may or may not notice a change in behaviour, but your loved one might be noticing some small changes like losing things more often or having trouble recalling words. While this will not interfere with his or her daily functioning or independence, it is a good idea to get to a doctor to see exactly what is going on.
Stage 3: Subtle Decline
Once stage three begins, changes in your loved one’s reasoning and thinking will become more noticeable. He or she may:
- Have trouble remembering names when meeting new people
- Begin asking the same question repeatedly
- Forget something she just read or heard
- Have difficulty organizing or planning
At this point, you can help make life easier by reminding the individual to make appointments, pay bills, take medications, and other important tasks. This is a good time to encourage your loved one to get their finances and legal affairs in order and consider retiring to decrease stress levels.
Stage 4: Decline Is Moderate
The symptoms observed in stage three will now become more noticeable in stage four. Additionally, you will notice the following symptoms:
- Forgetting details about him or herself
- Difficulty remembering the date, month, and season
- Trouble ordering menu items or cooking meals
You can assist by helping with chores and monitoring for safety. At this point, driving is no longer an option. Also, keep an eye out for anyone who could take financial advantage of your loved one.
Stage 5: Decline Becomes Moderately Severe
During stage five, an individual with Alzheimer disease may begin to forget what time it is, where she is, or what clothing is appropriate for the season. It can become difficult for your loved one to recall basic personal information. They may begin to repeat questions.
Caregivers can assist by doing things like laying out clothes for the day and answering questions patiently to reassure the individual.
Stage 6: Decline Becomes Severe
At this stage, the individual may not be able to put names with faces. He or she may confuse one person with another. Delusions may also set in, causing the person to think they need to do something when they don’t, like go to work or pick up the kids. They may require assistance with bathroom needs.
While having a conversation could be difficult, you can connect with your loved one through music, photos, or reading together.
Stage 7: Decline Becomes Very Severe
In this final stage, the individual will lose the ability to walk, eat, or even sit up straight. Caregiving during this phase will include feedings using soft foods and encouraging liquids throughout the day.
Alzheimer disease treatments
While we don’t have a cure yet, the medical community worldwide is working aggressively to understand the disease. There are a number of treatments available to address behavioral and cognitive symptoms. These include: [vii]
1. Alzheimer disease Medications
There are drugs on the market that can help diminish symptoms such as confusion and temporary memory loss. The two types of drugs frequently used are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. These drugs work by stabilizing or lessening cognitive symptoms by affecting the chemicals that carry messages among the nerve cells of the brain.
Cholinesterase Inhibitors are typically used for early to moderate stages of Alzheimer disease. These medications treat the following memory-related symptoms:
- Other thought-related processes
These drugs are typically well-tolerated, and side effects may include vomiting, appetite loss, increased bowel movements, and nausea.
Memantine medications are used for moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer disease. They work by regulating the activity of glutamate, which is related to the processing, storage, and retrieval of information. Some patients taking memantine experience improved mental function and the ability to complete basic tasks. This medication treats the following symptoms:
- Ability to perform basic tasks
Side effects of memantine can include headaches, dizziness, confusion, and constipation.
In some cases, individuals can be prescribed a medication that contains cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine.
2. Treatments for Alzheimer disease
Oftentimes, the most difficult aspect of having a loved one with Alzheimer disease is the behavioural symptoms that present during the stages of Alzheimer disease as brain cells progressively deteriorate.
People suffering from Alzheimer’s disease often encounter changes in behaviour, including depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, aggression, agitation, emotional distress, verbal or physical outbursts, and other symptoms.
2.Non-Drug Treatments ( Alzheimer disease )
There are a number of drug-free strategies focused on providing emotional and physical comfort to curb behavioural symptoms. These include the following tips to cope with Alzheimer disease-related behaviours:
- Assess regularly for comfort.
- Redirect the individual’s attention.
- Do not become confrontational.
- Encourage a low-stress environment.
- Encourage rest.
- Don’t take behaviours to heart.
- Assess behaviours to determine possible causes.
- Problems sleeping at night.
- Increased napping during the day.
- Discourage TV watching during awake hours
- Encourage the individual to use the bed for sleeping only
- Use security objects and nightlights for added comfort
- Ensure a comfortable room temperature
- Avoid giving Cholinesterase inhibitor medications near bedtime
- Address pain issues
- Avoid drinking and smoking near bedtime
- Encourage exercise daily, but not near bedtime
- Follow a consistent schedule
- Allow exposure to a good deal of sunlight in the morning