Facts about Alzheimer's Disease

How to recognize Alzheimer's symptoms before it's too late

Some degree of gradual cognitive slowdown, what some might consider absentmindedness or fuzzy thinking, is natural as we age. But when changes in reasoning skills or memory become severe enough to interfere with daily activities, it can be a sign of Alzheimer's Disease. The good news is there are effective treatments for this disease, so it's crucial to talk with your doctor as soon as you start to suspect Alzheimer's symptoms.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's sufferers typically develop a characteristic range of symptoms that include difficulties with short-term memory, difficulty making decisions, problems choosing language to express their thoughts and, ultimately, personality changes and difficulty recognizing people close to them.

Such symptoms usually first appear in individuals aged 60 or older, although earlier-onset Alzheimer's Disease does occur. Unfortunately, most of these symptoms do not manifest until many years after the brain abnormalities have begun to develop.

Alzheimer's and the brain

Alzheimer's Disease is named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first discovered physical changes in the brain of a woman who had died of mental illness. The changes he saw were abnormal clumps, known as amyloid plaques, and tangled bundles of nerve fibers, now called neurofibrillary tangles. These abnormal changes in the brain, together with disconnections between neurons, are the main physical causes of Alzheimer's symptoms.

According to the National Institute on Aging, while a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease cannot be made until a patient has died, there are a number of tests doctors can perform to determine whether a patient's cognitive symptoms are probably caused by Alzheimer's disease.

Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease

When Alzheimer's Disease is suspected, doctors usually take a careful personal history and then conduct a series of memory, problem-solving and language tests. Brain imaging with computerized tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests can also identify probable brain abnormalities.

Causes of Alzheimer's Disease

The causes of Alzheimer's Disease are not well understood. Experts believe the condition to be largely genetic, but lifestyle issues may play an important part as well.

In August 2009, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a five-year study that suggests that following a so-called Mediterranean diet, high in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat, while maintaining an active lifestyle might help prevent or delay Alzheimer's Disease. Of course, these healthy habits should ideally begin no later than midlife, since changes in the brain typically occur many years before symptoms show.

To try to understand the disease better, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke supports research being conducted across the country into, among other things, how brain abnormalities associated with Alzheimer's Disease develop, and how risk factors such as high blood pressure factor into the equation. Researchers are also looking for new and better Alzheimer's treatments. Ultimately, the goal is to find a cure.

Living with Alzheimer's Disease

There are currently at least four drugs that have been approved for Alzheimer's treatment, although none slow the progression of the disease itself.

Caregivers who understand Alzheimer's symptoms can assist by promoting a calm atmosphere, offering a diet free of caffeine and other artificial stimulants, and taking extra precautions to keep the patient safe from accidental injury. Local and national organizations exist that offer advice and emotional support for caregivers.

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