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What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Memory loss and cognitive decline is a scary prospect, but there are effective ways to manage Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, occurring in roughly 50% of all cases. Dementia presents as a progressive decline of cognitive abilities such as thinking, recalling information or reasoning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 5% of people over the age of 65 will develop a form of dementia, and this prevalence doubles with every five-year increase in age so that by 85, approximately 50% of people are affected.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

The biggest risks for developing Alzheimer’s disease appear to be head injuries, genetic factors and a strong family history of the illness. Since the disease is neurodegenerative, progressive brain-cell death happens over time, and often lapses in regular functioning are not immediately detected. In the presence of the disease, brain tissue becomes depleted of nerve cells and connections.

Autopsies of nerve tissue in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s may show tiny deposits of plaque that has built up on the tissue. Researchers cannot pinpoint one definitive reason why these changes in the brain physiology occur, but a family history of Alzheimer’s disease is a strong risk factor. These are a few other factors:

  • Bereavement
  • Loss of work
  • Social isolation
  • Caregiver burden
  • Alcohol

Alzheimer’s symptoms

There are various stages of the disease:

  • Preclinical: there are changes in the brain, but no notable symptoms or signs and the person can still be fairly independent
  • Moderate cognitive impairment: the longest stage, which can last several years, and during this stage the person will gradually require greater care and become less independent
  • Mild cognitive impairment or early onset Alzheimer’s: mild symptoms
  • Dementia: impaired cognitive function

Alzheimer’s symptoms and signs could include all or some of the following:

  • Memory: forgetting meetings and appointments, losing the way on a familiar route, repeatedly asking the same questions or retelling the same stories
  • Impaired reasoning: poorly managing finances, poor decision-making, which could result in a safety threat, inability to plan a series of tasks like getting ready for work
  • Speaking, reading and writing difficulties: forgetting everyday words or the names of familiar people or places, spelling and writing errors, reading the same page of a book over and over
  • Personality changes: frustration, depression, anxiety, lack of interest, withdrawing from society, compulsive behaviour, repeatedly performing the same tasks over and over

How is Alzheimer’s diagnosed?

There is no simple diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s disease, so doctors are often guided by the signs and symptoms and medical history of the patient. In addition, doctors might do genetic testing, cognitive and memory tests to assess the person’s ability to think and remember, and an MRI scan to examine changes in the brain physiology. Genetic testing is conducted to rule out an inherited disorder such as Huntington’s disease, since the symptoms of dementia are related to Huntington’s.

Alzheimer’s treatment

While there is a great deal of research being conducted into new drugs and treatments, as yet there is no surgery, Alzheimer’s medication or treatment regimen that can cure the disease. In some cases, specialists prescribe cognitive enhancers, which can slow down cognitive deterioration and can address some non-cognitive signs such as anxiety, irritability and agitation. Antidepressants and mood stabilisers may be effective treatments for anxiety and mood disorders that often accompany the disease.

Reduce your risk

Some factors like age and genetics are outside of your control, but there are steps you can take to prioritise brain health and preserve cognitive abilities:

  1. Regular exercise: A daily 30-minute walk or 150 minutes of weekly moderate activity, as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO)
  2. Social engagement: Human beings are inherently social, so it’s important to maintain strong ties with supportive family and friends
  3. Eat healthily, live healthy: Reduce cardiac risk factors like obesity, high cholesterol and hypertension by eating a healthy diet, and limit alcohol consumption and quit smoking.
  4. Mental stimulation: Cognitive activities that challenge your brain to learn new things greatly reduce the risk of neurodegenerative disorders.
  5. Stress management: Persistent stress disrupts the brain’s normal functioning and can hamper nerve-cell growth. Identify stressors and try relaxation techniques.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.