Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors
Alzheimer’s disease is a common, progressive, degenerative diseaseof the brain. It is characterized by loss ofmemory and other cognitive functions. Among people aged 65 or older, itis the most common cause of dementia.Dementia is a group of symptoms marked by the gradual loss of mentalfunction.
What is going on in the body?
People who have Alzheimer’s disease have abnormal deposits of a protein calledbeta-amyloid. Abnormal structures called plaque are formed from a combinationof destroyed nerve cells and the beta-amyloid. Tangles of nerve fibers areformed from abnormal nerve cells along with a type of protein called TAU. Asthe tangles and plaque develop, nerve cell connections are reduced. Theelimination of nerve cell connections causes damage to certain pathways in thebrain. These pathways are essential for thinking, learning, and memory.
People who have Alzheimer’s disease have smaller brains than the normal population. They alsohave lower amounts of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This chemical isessential for memory and thinking.
What are the causes and risks of the disease?
The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown. Factors that may increase the riskof developing Alzheimer’s disease include the following:
Symptoms & Signs
What are the signs and symptoms of the disease?
Sometimes individuals will wander. They can have problems doing complex taskssuch as cooking or keeping track of a checkbook.
Diagnosis & Tests
How is the disease diagnosed?
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is based on a history of increasing memory loss and other cognitive impairments. Changes in behavior, personality,and judgment may also be clues to the disease.
Since there is no definitive test for Alzheimer’s disease, it is important torule out other conditions or diseases that may cause the symptoms. Theseinclude the following:
The clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be made with an accuracy up to 90%based on these symptoms and the results of a collection of tests.
Prevention & Expectations
What can be done to prevent the disease?
Although there are no proven methods to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, recentresearch findings provide some options that may slow the onset of the diseaseor the progression of symptoms. These findings, which need further study,include:
What are the long-term effects of the disease?
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The disease is progressive. Thesymptoms get worse as the disease progresses. From the time the disease isrecognized until the person dies is generally about 6 to 8 years, although it canrange from less than 2 years to over 20 years.
What are the risks to others?
Alzheimer’s disease is not contagious and poses no risk to others.
Treatment & Monitoring
What are the treatments for the disease?
The 3 medications currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration fortreatment of Alzheimer’s disease are donepezil, tacrine, and rivastigmine.These medications are designed to improve memory by increasing the amount ofacetylcholine in the body.
Other medications, such as risperidone or quetiapine, may also be used to helpbehavioral problems such as hallucinations, delusions, or agitation. Someindividuals with Alzheimer’s disease may also need medications for depression, anxiety, or insomnia.
Other treatments include support and education for those caring for people withAlzheimer’s. Individual and family counseling can be beneficial. Support groupshave also been found to assist caregivers. As the disease progresses, manyfamilies are unable to care for the person with Alzheimer’s disease at home, andplacement in a special facility is needed.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Medications used to treat Alzheimer’s disease can damage the liver, so periodicliver function tests are needed. Otherside effects may include nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, vomiting, fatigue, or muscle cramps.
What happens after treatment for the disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disease without a cure.Treatment is lifelong. Because the course of Alzheimer’s disease isunpredictable, individuals with the disease should make plans for end-of-lifecare while they are still able to participate in the decision-making.
Difficult issues that family members may face include the following:
How is the disease monitored?
Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease will have periodic visits to thehealthcare provider for evaluation and treatment. Periodic liver function tests may be ordered if the person istaking one of the medications that can cause liver damage. Any new or worseningsymptoms should be reported to the provider.
Article type: xmedgeneral