All About Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms, Causes and Treatments
Alzheimer’s disease symptoms cause more than just forgetfulness. It’s the leading cause of cognitive (mental) decline in the Western world.
Over 30 million people worldwide live with this type of dementia. These include more than 6 million Americans over the age of 65.
To say the brain disease has a huge impact on the people it affects would be an understatement. Keep reading to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease symptoms along with their causes, risk factors and treatments.
Alzheimer’s Disease vs. Dementia
Dementia is a syndrome or a group of symptoms and physical findings that tend to occur together. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for about 60% to 80% of all cases.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
This brain condition slowly destroys your cognitive abilities. You lose all mental functions as your Alzheimer’s disease symptoms worsen.
These include your ability to keep your memories and:
- Think clearly
Alzheimer’s Disease Causes
Most theories point to brain degeneration as the likely culprit for your Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. You lose neurons (also called nerve or brain cells) as your brain tissue deteriorates.
Your remaining neurons respond less to chemical messengers in your brain called neurotransmitters. These transmit signals between your neurons to help them communicate with each other. For instance, your acetylcholine (ACh) levels go down.
ACh helps you focus, learn new concepts and form memories. Of all the Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, the mental function most affected is your ability to recall recent events.
Your symptoms may be due to higher levels of:
- Beta-amyloid (βA): abnormal protein deposits or plaques
- Senile or neuritic plaques: clumps of dead neurons that form around a βA core
- Neurofibrillary tangles: twisted strands of protein fibers in your neurons
- Tau: abnormal protein component of βA and neurofibrillary tangles
- Lewy bodies: abnormal proteins, though these occur less often than the other formations
Newer research also suggests this brain disease is mainly an autoimmune disorder. Researchers propose that βA is a normal part of your brain’s immune defense.
Brain cells are chock-full of fat molecules. This newer theory notes that βA can’t tell between the membranes of bacteria from those of fat molecules since they’re very alike. This leads to a misdirected assault against your brain cells.
Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease
Known risk factors for this brain illness include:
- Age (usually around 65 or older)
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Higher levels of homocysteine, an amino acid or chemical used by your body to make proteins
- Higher maternal age at the time of your birth
- Smoking nicotine
- Traumatic brain injury
Is Alzheimer’s Disease Hereditary?
Having the apolipoprotein epsilon (APOE)-2 gene may protect you against Alzheimer’s disease while APOE-4 may raise your risk for it.
Your risk goes up by 10% to 30% if your first-degree blood relative (e.g., parent or sibling) has it. You’re also 3 times more likely to have it if 2 or more of your siblings have it.
Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
Memory loss is one of the first and foremost Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. You may find it hard to:
- Do daily tasks and activities
- Perform complex tasks such as paying bills and balancing your checkbook
- Reason and use good judgment
- Recognize people
- Remember events, information and places
Your behavior, mood, perception and personality may also change. These can be classified into 5 domains:
- Cognitive/perceptual: delusions, hallucinations
- Emotional: apathy, anxiety, depression, euphoria, irritability
- Motor: pacing, physical aggression, repetitive movements, wandering
- Vegetative: sleep and appetite problems
- Verbal: calling out, repetitive speech, verbal aggression, yelling
What Are the 7 Stages of Alzheimer’s?
Your Alzheimer’s disease symptoms get much worse as you move through these 7 stages.
Stage 1: No Impairment
Your brain is still healthy and your mind, memories and mental functions are still intact. Bear in mind that it may take a few decades before you show any Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
Stage 2: Very Mild Cognitive Decline
You may have memory lapses but no other obvious Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.
Stage 3: Mild Cognitive Decline
People close to you may notice subtle changes. These might include slight issues with your memory or concentration such as not being able to:
- Come up with the right word
- Complete tasks at home or in social or work settings
- Plan or organize
- Recall the names of people introduced to you
- Remember what you just read
- Track an item you lost or misplaced
Stage 4: Moderate Cognitive Decline
As your Alzheimer’s disease symptoms progress, you’re more likely to:
- Feel moody or withdrawn
- Forget recent events and parts of your history
- Have problems performing complex tasks such as planning and hosting an event or taking care of your finances
Stage 5: Moderately Severe Cognitive Decline
You and others may notice more gaps in your memory, and you may need more help with your daily tasks. You may get confused about where you are and what day it is.
And though you remember major details about those close to you and yourself, you can’t recall other details such as where you went to school or how to contact key people in your life.
Stage 6: Severe Cognitive Decline
- Remember your name
- Recognize familiar faces
But you can’t:
- Control your bladder or bowels
- Dress, clean or feed yourself without help
- Recall much of your history or the names of those close to you
- Tell what day it is or where you’re at
And you may have dramatic shifts in your behavior, mood, perception and personality. For instance, you may get lost because you wandered off and find it hard to control your anxiety and temper.
Stage 7: Very Severe Cognitive Decline
Your memories and ability to communicate and respond to the world around you have fallen by the wayside. Along with worsening Alzheimer’s disease symptoms from earlier stages, you can’t:
- Articulate words normally (called dysarthria), although you may say words or phrases
- Eat or drink without choking or aspirating (inhaling bits of food, liquids or mouth secretions into your lungs)
- Move, smile or hold your head up due to rigid but weak muscles and slow or absent reflexes
- Recognize your face or that of family members or friends (called prosopagnosia)
- Use or understand language (called aphasia)
Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosis
Your doctor will discuss your medical history, perform a physical exam and conduct a simple mental status test. If needed, they will order:
- Blood tests to check if your levels are normal, high or low. These include a complete blood count (CBC), complete metabolic panel (CMP), thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and vitamin B12
- Brain scan such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) or single-photon emission CT (SPECT) to view images of your brain and map areas of concern
- Electroencephalogram (EEG) to see how areas of your brain function by measuring its electrical activity (brain waves)
- Neuropsychological test, which evaluates all areas of mental function such as your memory, mood, language and orientation
- Spinal tap (also called lumbar puncture) to check βA and tau levels in your cerebrospinal fluid
Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease
Science hasn’t found a cure for the disease yet. The treatment care plan usually entails safety and supportive measures along with drug therapies to ease Alzheimer’s disease symptoms and slow their progress.
Measures to Help You Stay Safe and Oriented
Your health care team (e.g., doctors, nurses and occupational and physical therapists) recommend changes to your environment and activities that help you maintain:
- Structure to help you feel more secure and oriented. If your usual caregivers, daily routine and surroundings must change, these are explained ahead of time using clear and simple terms.
- Scheduled activities that help you feel productive, independent and less anxious, depressed or stressed. These involve simple activities that brought you joy and fulfillment prior to having Alzheimer’s.
- Right amount of stimulation. Your hobbies must be kept simple or broken down into small actions to help keep you from getting overwhelmed and more confused by too much stimulation.
Medicines to Boost Brain Function
These medicines may improve mental function temporarily. They include:
- Cholinesterase inhibitors (e.g., donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine) to block an enzyme that breaks down ACh called acetylcholinesterase. This helps reduce Alzheimer’s disease symptoms and enhance communication between your neurons.
- Memantine to block receptors in your brain that bind to a chemical that may damage neurons called glutamate. This helps slow the loss of mental functions when your Alzheimer’s disease symptoms become moderate to severe.
- Aducanumab to remove βA plaques. The monoclonal antibody is injected under your skin monthly to improve mental functions and lessen the damage βA inflicts on your brain.
Medicines to Curb Disruptive Behavior
If measures to keep you safe and prevent disruptive behavior don’t help, these medicines may be an option:
- Antipsychotic drugs to help with agitation and outbursts. These medicines are often reserved for advanced Alzheimer’s disease symptoms with psychotic features such as delusions, hallucinations and paranoia.
- Antiseizure drugs to temper violent outbursts.
Treatments for Other Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
Depression can be treated with antidepressants while a short course of sedatives may help relieve anxiety. Although these sedatives can also help you sleep, it’s best to employ non-drug strategies first.
How to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
There’s no absolute way to prevent it. But lifestyle strategies may ease Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, help you live longer and lower your overall risk for the disease.
- Engage your mind with stimulating activities (e.g., play musical instruments, read intriguing articles or books or work on crossword puzzles)
- Follow a nutritious eating plan that supports a healthy weight (e.g., Mayo Clinic diet) and your heart and blood vessel health (e.g., Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay [MIND] diet)
- Keep your social calendar active and interact with others often
- Maintain healthy blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Quit or never start smoking nicotine products
- Work your heart with 30 minutes or more of aerobic (cardio) exercise at least 5 days a week (e.g., dancing, swimming or walking at a brisk pace)
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