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Alzheimer’s Disease: Medical information on Causes, Diagnosis, Symptoms and Treatment

alzheimers-diseaseQuick Answers about Alzheimer’s Disease

  • Alzheimer’s Disease Overview
  • The Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Genetics and Other Factors
  • The Declining Progression of Alzheimer’s
  • Diagnosing Alzheimer’s
  • Treating Alzheimer’s
  • Drug Treatment Complications
  • More Research Is Necessary

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s Disease Overview

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic condition where brain cells and brain cell connections degenerate and eventually die, destroying the individual’s memory and other essential mental functions.

There are more than three million cases of newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease in the United States every year. While there is currently no cure for the disease, there are effective treatments that may help temporarily improve symptoms.

The Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease

Scientific researchers have yet to fully understand the causes of memory loss and dementias including Alzheimer’s disease suffered by millions worldwide. It is thought that late onset Alzheimer’s disease is directly related to complex changes in the brain that happen over many years. It is thought that the common causes involve a combination of factors including genetics, environmental conditions and lifestyle choices. Each one of these factors has the potential of decreasing or increasing the potential of developing the disease between individuals.

Recent scientific studies involving Alzheimer’s disease have dealt specifically with the condition’s biological features including plaques and tangles. Some research has been able to isolate known stages of the progressive disease by studying specific changes in the individual’s body fluids and brain for early detection through simple diagnostic tests.

Scientists have long known that the progressive disease is more likely to strike older men and women. It is thought that many age-related changes occurring in the brain contribute to the damage of cells and cell connections. Some of these changes involve shrinking where specific areas of the brain atrophy, become inflamed or produce free radicals (unstable molecules). It is widely believed that the breakdown of cell energy production (mitochondrial dysfunction) is a crucial component to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Genetics and Other Factors

Science has been able to determine that there are two types of genetic-associated Alzheimer’s disease. The late-onset type often affects individuals in their mid-60s or older. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease tends to occur in individuals between the age of 30 to 60. However, fewer than one 1 of every 20 individuals suffering with the condition experiences Familial Alzheimer’s Disease (FAD) earlier in life by inheriting the disease from ancestors.

Many factors beyond genetically inheriting the condition likely plays a significant role in developing the disease. Some studies have made a correlation between vascular conditions (stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, etc.) and cognitive decline (memory loss). Some believe that remaining physically active, eating a nutritious diet, stimulating mental pursuits and engaging in social environments have assisted individuals in staying as mentally healthy as possible later in life. These factors might have the potential of reducing the potential of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive declining condition.

Early diagnosis of common chronic diseases and conditions including high blood pressure, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and high blood cholesterol during midlife may help reduce the potential of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, specific health factors not usually associated with dementia including hearing, vision and how well the patient’s dentures fit might be directly associated with developing the condition.

The Declining Progression of the Disease

Doctors and researchers have been able to categorize the declining stages of Alzheimer’s disease that involve:

  • Stage I – No detectable memory problem or impairment associated with the disease.
  • Stage II – Minor detectable memory issues often thought to be age-related.
  • Stage III – Detectable signs of affected memory loss including remembering, finding the right word, and a difficulty when learning.
  • Stage V – Assistance with activities of daily living is required.
  • Stage VI – A severe memory decline, the lack of ability in recognizing faces of loved ones, frequent wandering and incontinence.
  • Stage VII – Patient is unaware of their surroundings and requires assistance with every activity of daily living.

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s

Diagnosing physicians use various tools and methods to assist in determining if the individual suffering with Alzheimer’s-related memory problems or if the dementia is the result of another cause. Accurately diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease often involves factoring in every possible association, sign or symptom. Diagnosing doctors may:

  • Ask family members, friends or the patient specific questions about the patient’s overall health, abilities to participate in daily activities, past medical issues and any change in personality or behavior.
  • Conduct various tests that include problem-solving, memory, language, counting and attention.
  • Scan an image the patient’s brain through MRI (magnetic resident’s imaging), CT (computed tomography) scan, PET (positron emission tomography) scan to focus on what might be causing the patient’s symptoms.
  • Diagnosing the disease might require repeated testing to determine if the patient’s cognitive functions have measurable changes over time. A verifiable diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can only definitive after death by performing an autopsy of the patient’s brain tissue.

Doctors understand that there are various other factors that could be causing dementia or memory loss such as:

  • Chronic alcoholism
  • Drug side effects
  • Stroke
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Brain-associated blood clots
  • Brain infection or tumors
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Liver, kidney or thyroid disorders
  • Sleep disturbances

Treating Alzheimer’s

The complexity of treating Alzheimer’s disease or other form of dementia usually requires more than just one medication or other interventions to help the patient manage their behavior symptoms and maintain mental functioning to delay or at least slow down many of the disease’s symptoms. Some prescription medications used to treat many of the symptoms of mild to severe cases of Alzheimer’s disease to maintain mental function include:

  • Aricept (donepezil) – approved for treating all stages of Alzheimer’s.
  • Exelon (rivastigmine) – approved for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
  • Razadyne (galantamine) – approved for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.

Patient suffering from Alzheimer’s often have common behavioral problems that include agitation, sleeplessness, anxiety, wandering and aggression. Doctors might recommend a combination of medication and non-medication treatments to control the patient’s behavioral symptoms to make them more comfortable and easier to manage by their caregivers.

New clinical trials focusing on testing and developing numerous interventions have showed promising signs in treating many of the symptoms of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Some of these interventions include:

  • Immunization therapy
  • Cognitive training
  • Drug therapy
  • Cardiovascular and diabetes treatments
  • Physical activity

There is a second form of medication (memantine) (Namenda) approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat moderate to severe cases of Alzheimer’s. Some scientists believe that mild to severe Alzheimer’s patients taking cholinesterase inhibitors might benefit from additionally taking the memantine drug to regulate glutamate activity, one of the many messenger chemicals involved in memory and learning.

Drug Treatment Complications

Drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s are thought to delay the worsening of its symptoms and provide temporary relief. However, it is known to produce specific side effects that include constipation, dizziness, confusion and headaches.

More Research Is Necessary

Researchers are continually searching for new effective ways to treat Alzheimer’s disease through clinical trials. New advancing medications are being designed in the hope of slowing the progression of the disease and improve memory-associated symptoms and problems. In addition, Alzheimer’s vaccine is being developed.

Many doctors prescribe supplements to help the patient with their memory loss including coenzyme Q10, vitamin E, and coral calcium. However, to date, there is no specific evidence that these supplements have any positive effect.

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