About 2 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Approximately 10% of all people over the age of 65 and as many as 50% of those over the age of 85 are diagnosed with the condition.
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease, generally progressing from mild to moderate to severe. Starting with gradual, slight memory loss and confusion, it eventually leads to severe, irreversible mental impairment that destroys a person’s ability to remember, reason, learn and imagine.
The condition predominantly affects the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which lose mass and shrink (atrophy) as the disease advances. The hippocampus is the portion of the temporal lobe associated with memory and navigation.
The course the disease takes and how rapidly changes occur varies from person to person. For some, the progression from simple forgetfulness to severe dementia takes five years. For others, it can take a decade or longer.
People with mild Alzheimer’s can usually live alone and function fairly well. Persons with moderate Alzheimer’s may have greater difficulty coping without supervision. People with advanced Alzheimer’s usually cannot care for themselves.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Diagnosis
Genetic testing for Alzheimer’s is still in its infancy stages. Until it is further developed, Alzheimer’s will continue to be diagnosed through a process of elimination to rule out other diseases and conditions that cause memory loss. For example, small, undetected strokes can cause similar dementia by temporarily interrupting blood flow to the brain. In addition, many older people are on multiple medications that may impair their ability to think clearly.
To help distinguish Alzheimer’s from other causes of memory loss, doctors typically rely on the following:
- Medical history and family discussions.
- Basic blood and urine tests.
- Mental status tests to evaluate memory, problem-solving abilities, attention spans, counting skills, and language.
- Brain scans, such as computerized tomography (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), to pinpoint any visible abnormalities.
These methods help doctors accurately diagnose 90% of Alzheimer’s cases. Alzheimer’s can only be diagnosed with 100% accuracy from a brain autopsy after a person has died.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Treatment
Progress has been made in the last five years in treatments to help improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients. More drugs are being studied, and scientists are conducting genetic research that may lead to new treatments to block Alzheimer’s progression. Meanwhile, medications and caregiving are the primary treatments.
Current medications may slow the disease’s progression, lessening symptoms. Medications commonly recommended for people with Alzheimer’s can help slow the breakdown of neurotransmitters in the brain. Others can decrease symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s by improving levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Certain drugs can also improve the behavioral symptoms of the disease, including sleeplessness, wandering, anxiety, agitation and depression.
Until there’s a cure for Alzheimer’s, caregiving is a necessity, requiring patience, understanding, compassion and, often, creativity. Finding ways to reduce the impact of impaired abilities and behavior problems can help avoid some of the most difficult aspects of the disease. Symptoms vary from person to person, so care techniques should, too. They may include:
- Using memory aids such as a list of the day’s activities, the phone numbers that can be used to call for help, and instructions on how to do simple tasks, like make a cup of tea or use the telephone.
- Providing structure for serenity and stability to reduce behavior problems. As an Alzheimer’s patient becomes upset, the ability to think clearly declines even more.
- Monitoring wandering and providing memory support such as a pocket card with a phone number or a bracelet with name, phone number, and a notation such as “memory impaired.”
- Establishing a bedtime ritual that is calming. Leaving nightlights on to prevent disorientation.
- Enhancing communication by touching to focus attention, speaking slowly, and using gestures and cues.
- Creating a safe environment.
- Encouraging exercise to help retain motor skills, and sustain strength, flexibility and balance.
Alzheimer’s Disease: Resources
Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
PO Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250
Alzheimer’s Association National Office
225 N. Michigan Ave., Fl. 17
Chicago, IL 60601
24/7 Nationwide Contact Center: 1.800.272.3900
American Health Assistance Foundation
22512 Gateway Center Drive
Clarksburg, Maryland 20871
Tel: 800-437-2423 or (301) 948-3244
Fax: (301) 258-9454
870 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Tel: 415-732-7040 or 888-598-3789
International Federation for Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus
Tel: +32 (0)2 502 0413