Alzheimer's Disease

Many of us go through our daily lives forgetting the odd appointment or misplacing our car keys. We may even have trouble searching our brains for the right word to use in a sentence or for that new coworker's name. For most of us, this is just a nuisance and is usually caused by fatigue or stress. However, for some people this type of memory loss may be an indicator of something more serious.

Alzheimer's disease affects millions of people around the world and causes severe loss of memory, communication, and other brain functions. For those suffering from Alzheimer's, day-to-day life can become an extremely difficult challenge. Although the disease mainly affects those over 65, it is important to learn about Alzheimer's symptoms so that you can take preventative measures now.

What is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that destroys our ability to learn, remember, communicate, and function in our daily lives. It affects 4.5 million people in the United States alone. A type of dementia, Alzheimer's disease destroys the nerve cells in the brain, preventing information from being relayed accurately to the body. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disorder that will gradually worsen over time; there are numerous stages of alzheimers. The disease can last anywhere from 3 to 20 years, with most people suffering for about 8 years. Unfortunately, there is no Alzheimer cure and the disease always ends in death.

How Does it Affect the Brain?
Named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer who discovered the disease in 1906, Alzheimer's directly affects the way the brain processes information. Our brains are made up of millions of tiny cells, called neurons, which transmit information and retain memory. In Alzheimer's disease, proteins begin to collect between the gaps in these neurons and within the neurons themselves. These proteins are called "plaques" and "tangles". Usually, these proteins are a normal part of aging, but in people with Alzheimer disease there are far too many plaques and tangles. As a result, these proteins prevent the neurons from sending any signals through to the brain.

Alzheimer's disease also affects neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are special chemicals that help the neurons to send their messages. A hormone called acetylcholine aids in processing information regarding memory and judgement. People suffering from Alzheimer's disease have reduced levels of acetylcholine, limiting the amount of information that can be relayed throughout the brain.

Causes of Alzheimer's Disease
There are many Alzheimer's causes. The disorder may be a result of factors including age, environment, and genetics.

The most common cause of Alzheimer's is age. Late-onset Alzheimer's occurs most frequently, typically after the age of 65. Scientists have identified one specific gene linked to late-onset alzheimer's.

A rare form of familial Alzheimer's has also been linked to a defective gene. Only a few hundred families in the whole world have this gene, but those with the gene are extremely likely to develop the disorder.

Who's At Risk?
Everyone is at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease. The biggest risk factor is your age Alzheimer's disease usually begins after the age of 65, though it can appear earlier. After the age of 65, the risk for developing Alzheimer's doubles every five years. The risk is highest after the age of 85, when 1 in 2 people will develop the disorder. If one of your parents or siblings has had the disease, you are also at increased risk for developing it.

Alzheimer's affects both women and men, though more women seem to suffer from the disease. This is probably due to the fact that women tend to live longer than men. If you are a woman, you are at increased risk for developing Alzheimer's if you are menopausal, underweight, or have had a heart attack, hip fracture, or hysterectomy. This is because low estrogen levels can decrease the amount of acetylcholine in your brain, thereby contributing to the formation of plaques and tangles.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's symptoms will begin mildly and eventually progress to a chronic state. Most people with Alzheimer's will eventually forget how to perform everyday tasks and will require Alzheimer's care. Here are some symptoms to watch out for. If you notice any or all of these Alzheimer symptoms, it is important to seek advice from your health care provider.

  • Memory loss that occurs more often than normal.
  • Difficulty performing normal tasks, such as making dinner or taking a shower.
  • Difficulty with language including using strange words or forgetting simple words.
  • Disorientation or becoming lost in familiar places.
  • Poor judgement, such as giving away large sums of money or wearing weather-inappropriate clothes.
  • A change in personality, such as becoming suspicious or fearful of others.
  • A lack of initiative or interest in once loved activities.

Alzheimer's Treatment
There is no cure for the disease but there are Alzheimer's medications available to slow the progression of the disease. Though these treatments may temporarily stop memory loss, eventually loss of brain cells will continue.

In early and middling stages of the disease, the drugs tacrine, donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine are used to halt memory loss. In later stages of Alzheimer's, memantime is used to prolong a person's ability to perform daily functions. Because Alzheimer's is also accompanied by depression, anxiety, and occasional psychotic episodes, a variety of antidepressants, anti-psychotics, and anti-anxiety medications are also used to treat the disease.

Prevention
Much of the current Alzheimer's research has focused on finding preventative measures for the disorder. It appears that there are a number of things you can do to lower your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Here are a few things to try out:

Antioxidants: Antioxidants like Vitamins A, C, and E prevent damage caused by free radical agents. Free radicals are believed to contribute to the formation of plaque in the brain. Vitamin E also has been shown to stop mental decline in certain Alzheimer's disease stages for up to 7 months. See your doctor if you are interested in taking these supplements.

Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDS, especially ibuprofen, have been shown to decrease the risk of Alzheimer's disease considerably. When taken for 2 years, ibuprofen has been shown to reduce the risk of the disorder by up to 60%. You should consult your doctor before taking any NSAIDs for an extended period of time

Estrogen: Estrogen therapy is thought to increase the levels of acetylcholine in women's brains and block the formation of plaque, thereby enhancing brain activity. It also increases blood flow to the brain. However, estrogen has been linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer's if taken after the age of 65.

Mind Stimulation: Exercise for your mind has been proven to help strengthen the interconnections between neurons in your brain, thus making you brain healthier. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's by up to 50%. Alzheimer activities, like crosswords, chess, or playing an instrument can help to keep your brain working.

Stress Reduction: Stress also appears to play its part in Alzheimer's disease. When you are stressed out, your body releases hormones that interfere with memory. Do your best to reduce the stress in your life. Try taking up meditation, exercise, or prayer.

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