What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a disease that forms within a sufferer’s brain, and which slowly begins to impact their memory and thinking skills. In the long run, Alzheimer’s usually ends up impacting a person's ability to carry out even the simplest of tasks, such as eating and speaking and will inevitably drastically reduce their quality of life and cause them to become dependent on others.
Most sufferers of Alzheimer’s are over the age of 65, and the risk of getting it increases as you age. However, it’s important to note that developing Alzheimer’s certainly isn’t an inevitable part of aging, which is why it’s important to take plenty of steps throughout your life to prevent it.
Can Alzheimer's be cured?
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease still has no cure, however, there are many treatments available that can help slow down its development or suppress some of the symptoms altogether.
If you think that you or someone you know might suffer from Alzheimer's, then this simple test can give you some quick answers.
The Difference Between Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are two terms that are often used interchangeably by people since there’s a common misconception that they both refer to the same condition. However, Alzheimer’s disease is actually just one of the many paths that can lead to dementia.
This is because dementia is merely an umbrella term for a group of symptoms that affect a sufferer’s thought processes and memory. When a person is diagnosed with dementia, they are simply being told that they are suffering from a particular set of symptoms. The next step would then be to work out exactly what causes these symptoms to appear in the first place.
The most common reason for the onset of dementia is, in fact, Alzheimer’s disease, since it has been estimated to be responsible for as many as 70% of dementia cases. However, there are many other causes of dementia, including Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Another key difference is that, in certain cases, dementia can be a temporary and reversible condition, while Alzheimer’s disease has been found to be a permanent condition, which only ends up getting worse, as time goes by.
The 3 Main Types of Alzheimer’s Disease
Nearly everyone who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease will eventually begin to experience the same symptoms, including confusion, memory loss, trouble with once-familiar tasks, and difficulty in making decisions. However, there are 3 main types of Alzheimer’s disease, and their differences lie in the way that they are contracted:
1. Late-Onset Alzheimer’s
By far the most common form of the disease, at around 95% of all cases, Late-Onset Alzheimer’s is the kind that occurs in people over the age of 65. It may or may not be genetically-linked, since researchers have yet to find a particular gene that causes it, despite their suspicions.
2. Early-Onset Alzheimer’s
This kind of Alzheimer’s is a lot less common and only accounts for around 5% of all cases. It occurs in people who are under the age of 65, typically in their 40s or 50s, and people who suffer from Down syndrome have a higher risk of getting it.
Scientists have found that early-onset Alzheimer’s has an even greater effect on the brain than its late-onset counterpart, and has linked its formation to a DNA defect contained within chromosome 14. A muscle twitch known as myoclonus is also more common for sufferers of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
3. Familial Alzheimer's Disease (FAD)
This is a rare form of Alzheimer’s that is 100% genetic, which accounts for less than 1% of all Alzheimer’s cases. In affected families, members of at least two generations have typically had this kind of Alzheimer’s, and many cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s are actually linked to FAD.
The Stages & Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that gradually gets worse over time, and that’s why its symptoms are often split into 3 sections: early, middle, and severe stages.
In the early stages of Alzheimer's a person may:
• Find it hard to remember things
• Ask the same questions repeatedly
• Get lost in familiar places
• Lose things or place them in unusual places
• Have trouble handling money and paying bills
• Take longer than they normally would to finish daily tasks
Once Alzheimer's has progressed to the middle stages, the symptoms, particularly memory loss and confusion, grow worse. Other symptoms include:
• Difficulty learning new things and coping with new situations
• Trouble carrying out tasks that involve many steps, such as getting dressed
• Impulsive behavior
• Forgetting the names of common things
• Hallucinations, delusions or paranoia
• Problems recognizing family and friends
• Wandering away from home
Once Alzheimer's has progressed to the more severe stages, symptoms include:
• Total lack of communication
• Spending a lot more time asleep
• Weight loss
• Trouble swallowing
• Complete dependence
Learn more about the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease here.
The Science Behind Alzheimer’s Disease
Due to the highly complex nature of Alzheimer’s disease, scientists around the world are still not completely sure what causes it, and how it works. However, many years of research have led us to understand a number of key points.
Specifically, we know that Alzheimer’s causes certain brain cells to lose their functions and die, and this is what causes memory loss. A process called atrophy (shrinking of the brain) also takes place, which causes a harmful loss of brain volume.
This loss of brain function is believed to be due to the interactions of two types of proteins, known as amyloid and tau, which have been found to block communication between brain neurons. Amyloid has been observed accumulating into plaque-like clusters, while tau has a tendency to build up inside dying cells in what researchers call ‘neurofibrillary tangles’.
Other researchers also believe that chronic inflammation in the brain may also play a role in the onset and development of Alzheimer’s. Inflammation often occurs as a part of the human body’s defense system, and it aids white blood cells in destroying toxins and waste products.
However, scientists have found that certain waste products, such as amyloid plaque and tau tangles, are not being eliminated by Alzheimer’s patients' brains, causing their brain cells to remain permanently inflamed, which ultimately leads to the death of many more brain cells each day.
Watch this video to find out how Alzheimer's really works.
How to Prevent the Onset of Alzheimer’s
Drugs to Help Manage the Symptoms
Even though there’s still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are two specific types of medication that can aid in managing the disease’s main symptoms – cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. Both of these drugs have been approved for use by the FDA to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and should always be used under a doctor’s supervision.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are usually used to treat the symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. They work by boosting the strength of certain nerve cells that the disease typically attacks. While they can’t completely stop or reverse the disease’s destructive process, they can slow it down quite a bit.
Common side effects of cholinesterase inhibitors include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, all of which can be reduced by taking your medication with food, and by starting low and upping the dose gradually.
The most common types of cholinesterase inhibitors prescribed are:
• Galantamine (Razadyne) for mild to moderate Alzheimer's
• Rivastigmine (Exelon) for mild to moderate Alzheimer's
• Donepezil (Aricept) for all stages of Alzheimer’s
Memantine (Namenda) is usually used to treat the symptoms of severe Alzheimer’s. It works by regulating one of the brain’s most important messenger chemicals – glutamate. Memantine is typically taken in the form of a syrup or pill, and the most common side effects include confusion, agitation, headaches, and dizziness.
If none of the medications above are working on their own, the FDA has also approved the use of donepezil in combination with memantine (Namzaric), which is usually found in capsule form. Common side effects include headaches, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
Coping Tips For Alzheimer’s Sufferers
Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is always devastating news, but as soon as you get over the initial shock, you need to start finding ways to cope, so that you’ll be able to maximize your independence for the foreseeable future. Here are some tips that will help you better handle your day-to-day tasks, and keep on living a meaningful life:
• Create a strong coping strategy by identifying new challenges, prioritizing them, and creating a solution that works best for you.
• Set realistic goals, and only focus on things that you can do today!
• Develop a daily routine that’s easy to follow.
• Never try and multitask!
• Learn to recognize stress triggers.
• Realize that you have more than one shot at fixing most problems.
• Draw inner strength from family, friends, prayer, pets, hobbies, or anything else that you love!
• Try your best to be independent, but don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Coping Tips For Caregivers
It can be sad to see a relative, loved one or friend deteriorate from the effects of Alzheimer’s, but there are quite a few things that you can do to help make their quality of life a lot better, as well as making your job a little easier. Here are a few things you should keep in mind as a caregiver:
• Don’t even think about trying to argue with an Alzheimer’s sufferer – you will get nowhere.
• Ignoring the symptoms won’t make them go away.
• Be aware that too much medication can actually cause further memory loss, so always check with your doctor which ones are really necessary.
• Always listen to what they have to say, even if it makes little sense to you.
• It’s never too late to work on improving their brain health.
• Share your struggles and be open to receiving help.
• Remember to give yourself a break every once in a while.
• Don’t forget to prioritize!
• Remember that 20 minutes for you can feel like a whole day for them.
• Have difficult conversations about medical/legal issues early on, so that you can ensure that you will honor their wishes later on.
We’d also recommend trying out some of these 7 meaningful acts to help people with dementia.
The Most Promising Scientific Studies So Far
With every year that passes, members of the scientific community keeps gaining more and more knowledge about how Alzheimer’s disease works, and are constantly searching for new ways to prevent it, slow down its progression, and ultimately to cure it.
Update - 28th March 2018: Scientists Discover Anti-Alzheimer's Antibodies
Scientists have now found yet another way to reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer's in mice. By using an antibody called HAE-4, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine were able to successfully reduce the amount of Alzheimer's-causing amyloid plaque in the mice's brains by around 50%.
They also found that this process was selective enough to only affect cells within the brain, while leaving other areas untouched, thereby greatly reducing the chance of side effects being present. The researchers are now planning to explore the way in which similar antibodies work, before preparing to test this process out on human patients.
Update - 5th April 2018: Low Dopamine Levels Are Linked to Alzheimer's
A new study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, has now found that people with low dopamine levels may be at an increased risk of suffering from Alzheimer's disease in the future. The researchers analyzed 110 adults with certain memory testing techniques, as well as 3Tesla MRI technology, which is a type of MRI scan that's twice as powerful as normal, which allows for more accurate scans.
Their results showed that if the dopamine-rich area of the brain, called the ventral tegmental area, doesn't spend enough dopamine to the hippocampus, then the ability for a person to learn new information will gradually decline, which could ultimately end up causing Alzheimer's.
Scientists from UT Southwestern have recently discovered the earliest point in a neurodegenerative process that is thought to lead to dementia. The researchers have described their discovery like finding the 'Big Bang' of Alzheimer’s disease, and they hope that their work leads to new treatments and ways to detect the disease before major symptoms occur.
This new research focuses on a particular protein that is called tau, which can accumulate and kill neurons, and many researchers believe it to be the cause of Alzheimer's. It was previously believed that isolated tau proteins didn’t have a distinctly harmful shape until they began to aggregate with other tau proteins, but this new research has shown that a toxic tau protein actually presents itself as misfolded, exposing parts that are usually folded inside, before it begins to aggregate. It’s these exposed parts of the protein that enable aggregation, forming the larger toxic tangles.
Now that this early alteration in the shape of tau molecules has been identified, researchers can focus on potential drug targets to inhibit the toxic accumulation at this stage.
Discover more about this impressive development here.
Update - 27th August 2018: Scientists Discover & Cure Alzheimer's 'Zombie Cells'
A type of cellular stress that is linked to both cancer and aging has now also been found to be connected to Alzheimer's disease. UT Health San Antonio faculty researchers recently reported this discovery in the scientific journal, Aging Cell, and it is being hailed by leading scientists as a potentially massive step forward.
The researchers discovered that this stress, known as cellular senescence, does not outright kill the cell, but it may cause it to become zombie-like, altering its functions and killing surrounding cells. Incredibly, the researchers were able to decrease their presence, as well as the malignant tau protein tangles, using a combination of drugs including dasatinib and quercetin.
Learn more about this study here.
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