Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs people of their memory. At first, people have a hard time remembering recent events, though they might easily recall things that happened years ago. People with Alzheimer’s might forget their loved ones. They might forget how to dress themselves, feed themselves, and use the toilet. The disease makes brain tissue break down over time. It usually happens to people over age 65. A person can live with Alzheimer’s disease for just a few years or for a few decades. More often, however, people live with it for about 9 years. About 1 in 8 people aged 65 and over have the disease. Women are more likely to have it than men. People who get Alzheimer’s disease are usually older, but the disease is not a normal part of aging.
Scientists believe that for most people, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time. Less than 5 percent of the time, Alzheimer’s is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease. Although the causes of Alzheimer’s aren’t yet fully understood, its effect on the brain is clear. Alzheimer’s disease damages and kills brain cells. A brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease has many fewer cells and many fewer connections among surviving cells than does a healthy brain. As more and more brain cells die, Alzheimer’s leads to significant brain shrinkage. When doctors examine Alzheimer’s brain tissue under the microscope, they notice that the symptoms it causes seem to come from two main types of nerve damage in which the nerve cells get tangles (neurofibrillary tangles), and protein deposits (beta-amyloid plaques build up in the brain).
Researchers are not sure what causes this damage or how it happens, but it could be a protein in blood called ApoE (for Apo lipoprotein E), which the body uses to move cholesterol in the blood. There are a few types of ApoE that may be linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s. It could be that certain forms of it cause brain damage. Some scientists think it plays a role in building the plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Whether or not ApoE partly causes Alzheimer’s, genes almost certainly play a role in the disease. Someone with a parent who had the disease is more likely to have it too. There is some evidence that people with high blood pressure and high cholesterol have a greater chance of getting Alzheimer’s. More rarely, head injuries may be a reason, too; the more severe they are, the greater the risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. Scientists are still studying many of these theories, but it’s clear that the biggest risks linked to Alzheimer’s disease are being older and having Alzheimer’s in your family.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s at first, is increasing forgetfulness or mild confusion may be the only symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that you will notice. But over time, the disease robs you of more of your memory, especially recent memories. The rate at which symptoms worsen varies from person to person. If you have Alzheimer’s, you may be the first to notice that you are having unusual difficulty remembering things and organizing your thoughts. Or you may not recognize that anything is wrong, even when changes are noticeable to your family members, close friends or co-workers. Brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease lead to growing trouble with memory loss, thinking and reasoning, making judgments and decisions, planning and performing familiar tasks, changes in personality and behaviour.
There is no one test to determine if someone has dementia. Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia based on a careful medical history, a physical examination, laboratory tests, and the characteristic changes in thinking, day-to-day function and behavior associated with each type. Doctors can determine that a person has dementia with a high level of certainty. But it’s harder to determine the exact type of dementia because the symptoms and brain changes of different dementias can overlap. In some cases, a doctor may diagnose “dementia” and not specify a type. If this occurs it may be necessary to see a specialist such as a neurologist or gero-psychologist.
Treatment of dementia depends on its cause. In the case of most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure and no treatment that slows or stops its progression. But there are drug treatments that may temporarily improve symptoms. The same medications used to treat Alzheimer’s are among the drugs sometimes prescribed to help with symptoms of other types of Alzheimer’s. Non-drug therapies can also alleviate some symptoms of dementia.
By Mercy Kukah