What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease has become a familiar and recognized condition over the years. It’s the most common cause of dementia — a progressive decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that eventually makes it difficult for someone to function independently. Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually, the ability to carry out simple tasks.1 The disease continues to mystify the medical community, but there’s been a growing focus on research to help us understand this complex condition.
What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s?
Recognizing the signs of Alzheimer’s early in the course of the disease can sometimes be difficult. We’ve all misplaced our keys or forgotten someone’s name. That’s common and shouldn’t necessarily be a cause for concern. The first symptoms of Alzheimer’s vary from person to person. For many, decline in non-memory aspects of cognition, such as word-finding, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment may signal the very early stages of the disease.2 This disease affects all sorts of things, from memory and mood swings, to the ability to complete everyday tasks. Signs of Alzheimer’s include:3
- Often misplacing things
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Having trouble finding words to describe objects or express thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating and thinking (especially relating to numbers)
- Making poor or uncharacteristic choices
- Forgetting how to carry out basic tasks, like dressing or bathing
- Personality changes (depression, irritability, wandering)
If you’ve noticed some of these behaviors in yourself or a loved one, schedule a visit with your doctor. These symptoms can reflect signs of early Alzheimer’s or signs of early dementia.
How is Alzheimer’s disease related to dementia?
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are often used interchangeably in conversation, but there’s a slight difference between these two conditions. Dementia is a general term for symptoms like decline in memory, reasoning, or other thinking skills. Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a specific brain disease that causes one form of dementia. You can think of dementia as the umbrella term for a decline in cognition and Alzheimer’s as a specific type of dementia.4
What is early-onset Alzheimer’s?
Early-onset, or young-onset Alzheimer’s is an uncommon form of dementia that affects people younger than 65 (usually developed between 30 and 60 years old). Most people with this disease have what’s called sporadic Alzheimer’s and its cause is unknown. Then there are some who have familial Alzheimer’s, which is likely caused by genetics. Only about 5% or 6% of people with Alzheimer’s develop symptoms before 65. If the disease runs in your family, there are options for genetic testing. However, it’s a good idea to check in with a genetic counselor to weigh the pros and cons before moving forward.5
What are the stages of Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s typically progresses slowly in three general stages.6
Symptoms may not very obvious at this stage, but loved ones may notice some differences. This is a good time to see a doctor and discuss any symptoms that have been seen so far. Common symptoms in early-stage Alzheimer’s include:
- Finding the right word or name
- Remembering new names
- Wandering or getting lost
- Trouble handling money or paying bills
- Repeating questions
- Trouble planning or organizing
This is usually the longest stage, which can last a few years. By this point, the person with Alzheimer’s will need more hands-on care and symptoms are more noticeable. The person might get confused, frustrated or angry. They might also act in odd ways, like refusing to bathe. Common symptoms in middle-stage Alzheimer’s include:
- Forgetting parts of their life or personal information
- Confusion about where they are or what day it is
- Trouble controlling their bladder or bowels
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Personality and behavioral changes, like delusions or repetitive behavior
In this final stage, symptoms are usually severe. The person may lose the ability to interact with their environment, carry on a conversation or even control movement. You might see significant personality changes in this stage. Common symptoms in late-stage Alzheimer’s include:
- Not remembering recent events or knowing their surroundings
- A decline in physical abilities, like walking, sitting or swallowing
- Trouble communicating
- Being vulnerable to infections, like pneumonia
What causes Alzheimer’s?
While there isn’t a known cause of Alzheimer’s, experts believe several factors contribute to its development including genetics, lifestyle, and environment. The biggest risk factor is age, but it’s not a direct cause of Alzheimer’s. Family history is another factor. People who have a close family member with the disease are more likely to get it themselves. Many people ask, “Is Alzheimer’s genetic?” While genes may increase your chance for getting the disease, they don’t guarantee it.7
Can Alzheimer’s be prevented?
You may think Alzheimer’s disease is something inevitable that happens as we age, but that’s not the case. In fact, it’s not part of the normal aging process at all. And because there’s no known cure, all we can do right now is focus on Alzheimer's prevention:7
- Protect your brain. There’s a connection between head injuries and risk of dementia. Buckle your seat belt, wear your helmet and be cautious when you’re roughhousing.
- Focus on heart health. There’s a strong link between brain health and heart health. After all, the heart is what pumps oxygen-rich blood to your brain for it to function. Work with your doctor to make sure your heart is working in tip-top shape.
- Eat foods that boost brain health. Speaking of heart health, many heart diseases are caused from a poor diet. Plus, certain foods help with brain function. Find a diet to help keep your heart (and brain) healthy, like the Mediterranean diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet.
- Be social. Social activity helps keep your brain active. Participating in exercise groups or book clubs can help keep your body and mind active and strong.
- Exercise your mind. You might think exercise is just for your body. But in truth, there are benefits you get from working out your brain too. Make time to read, do puzzles, play a memory game – and maybe challenge yourself to a brain teaser here and there.
How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?
Doctors rely on medical history, mental status tests, brain imaging, exams, and diagnostic tests for an accurate Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It’s important to see your doctor early if you notice cognitive changes in yourself or a loved one. Your primary doctor will check your overall health, address concerns and usually oversee the diagnosis process themselves. (Tip: be sure to ask your doctor how familiar they are with diagnosing dementia. They may refer you to a specialist instead).8 To make the most of your appointment, consider bringing information on the following:9
- Changes in your health (mood, memory, behaviors)
- Medical history (including current or past medical conditions, history of head trauma and family history of dementia)
- Medications including vitamins and supplements you’re taking
- Questions you want to ask your doctor