What is Alzheimer's Disease?

In honor of Alzheimer's Awareness Month, I wanted to share some information to help you understand the disease. More than likely we have all met at least one person with Alzheimer's or dementia. These two terms are often interchanged, however, they are not the same. So what's the difference really?

  • Dementia is a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. It is not a specific disease. It just describes a group of symptoms.

  • Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia (it accounts for 60 to 80% of all dementia cases).

So, yes, Alzheimer's is dementia. However, not all dementia's are Alzheimer's disease.

So what causes Alzheimer's disease?

Well as we age we can develop abnormal structures in our brain called plaques and tangles. These abnormal structures can damage and kill healthy nerve cells in the brain. It's the destruction and death of nerve cells that causes memory failure, personality changes, problems carrying out daily activities and other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Who's at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease?

  • Age plays a part. While there is Early Onset Alzheimer's (disease onset before age 65), most individuals with the disease are 65 and older. After age 65, the risk of Alzheimer's doubles every five years. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly one-third.

  • Family history can also increase your chances of developing the disease. If a brother, sister, or parent has Alzheimer's you are at a higher risk of developing the disease.

  • Genetics plays a part, too. Scientists have found "risk genes" which if you inherit these genes you are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. They have also found "deterministic genes" which if you inherit these genes you will develop this disorder. Thankfully, deterministic genes account for less that 1% of all Alzheimer's cases. If you are considering genetic testing I recommend reading this article by the Alzheimer's Society before making your decision.

  • Studies have also found a link between the history of head injury and future risk of dementia.

  • The risk of developing Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia appears to be increased by many conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels. These include heart disease, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

What are the signs/symptoms of Alzheimer's disease/dementia?

Oftentimes we witness our older family members forgetting things and we'll say something like, "Oh, they're just getting older." It's important to understand the difference between normal aging and signs of a disease, such as Alzheimer's. Three important things to know about Alzheimer's disease are:

  1. It is NOT normal aging.

  2. It is a progressive disease.

  3. There is currently no cure.

If you notice a loved one starting to get more forgetful here's a helpful chart to help you determine if it's normal signs of aging or if they are exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer's/dementia:

Image is taken from Alzheimer's Association Brochure

This can still be kind of confusing so to help you understand normal age-related changes here are some examples of NORMAL AGE-RELATED CHANGES:

  • Getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later. For example, I think we've all had a week where we thought it was Friday only to find out later that it was only Thursday. This is normal.

  • Misplacing items from time to time, such as lost glasses or a remote. I don't know about you, but I've been looking for my sunglasses and they've been on my head the whole time. Or I was watching TV and went to the kitchen to get something and set the remote down. I didn't realize it so I was searching everywhere for the remote. This is normal.

  • Getting irritable when a daily routine is modified (it is common for older adults to establish a daily routine). I don't know about you, but I love the Price is Right. Have you ever tried to tell a die-hard fan that they can't watch it because they have an appointment? If you haven't, I don't recommend trying it. While we may see it as an irrational outburst (I actually had a patient cry once when I said we had to miss the showcase showdown), this is actually normal for the aging adult.

  • Sometimes forgetting names and appointments, but remembering them later. For example, I think we've all had conversations where we say, "You know, so-and-so, from down the street" or something along those lines because we can't remember someone's name. It's also okay to occasionally forget an appointment. This is normal.

The following are examples that are NOT considered normal aging and may be an early sign of Alzheimer's/dementia:

  • People with Alzheimer's often lose track of days of the week, years, and even seasons. For example, I've had patient's walk in from a rainy outside and when I ask them what the weather was they say "I can't remember" or "Sunny." You may also experience a loved one telling you a year that just doesn't make sense, for example, I once had someone tell me they were born in 1843, this was obviously not correct. It may not always be this drastic. They may also occasionally get confused about where they are and/or how they got there.

  • When we talk about misplacing items, people with Alzheimer's can't retrace their steps. If we go back to my lost remote example above (where I left it in the kitchen) a normal aging adult can retrace their steps to find where they left something. A person with dementia typically cannot retrace their steps to find the object. People with Alzheimer's may also put things in weird places, for example, someone who puts their keys in the refrigerator or puts ice cream in the cabinet. They may also accuse others of stealing items if they cannot find it.

  • It is common for people with Alzheimer's/dementia to experience anxiety, depression, confusion, and to become fearful or suspicious. While these may be signs of other medical conditions it is important to seek medical help if you or a loved one exhibits any of these symptoms.

  • Lastly, forgetting names, places, and appointments. One of the first signs people often notice with Alzheimer's is forgetting recently learned information. They may also forget important names, dates, and places. It is one thing to forget a neighbor's name, but if a loved one begins to forget pets names, children's names, or spouses names this is NOT normal aging.

For more information on the difference between normal aging vs Alzheimer's aging check out this brochure for the Alzheimer's Association

Also, if you're into bracelets check out these "Stronger Together" bracelets from MantraBand. Now through September 2019 they are donating $5 from each bracelet sold to the Alzehimer's Association. (Please note: I do not get any profit or personal benefit from sharing this link. I just think they're cute!)

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