Is it Alzheimer’s disease? As people age, the rapid mental recall of youth often fades. Yet most aging adults have wisdom and life experience to share and are cognitively sound. With increased awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, however, has come an increased fear that every mental glitch we experience as we age is a sign of AD. So, what is Alzheimer’s disease and what could these disturbing symptoms be if they are not AD?
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that gradually destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually the ability to carry out simple tasks is also lost, as is the ability to recognize family members and communicate one’s needs. If Alzheimer’s strikes a person before age 65, it’s termed early on-set Alzheimer’s disease. Most people with the disease will show symptoms after the age of 65.
All too often the words "dementia" and "Alzheimer’s" are used interchangeably, so it’s important to know that Alzheimer’s is just one type of dementia, though it’s thought to be the most common type. Dementia means the loss of cognitive functioning such as thinking, remembering, and reasoning. Changes in behavior that affect a person to the extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities are also signs of dementia.
There are many types of dementia including vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia (Pick’s disease), dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease and dementia associated with alcoholism, as well as Alzheimer’s, of course. Doctors are also starting to diagnose "mixed dementias", meaning that the person has at least two kinds of dementia, each affecting the brain in a slightly different manner.
Researchers now speculate that Alzheimer’s begins a decade or more before any symptoms are noticed. However, during this symptom-free time, toxic changes are happening to the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins are forming amyloid plaques and tau tangles, and neurons are beginning to work less efficiently. Eventually, neurons lose their ability communicate with each other and they die. Damage spreads to the part of the brain known as the hippocampus, where we form memories, which explains why people tend to notice memory loss as a first symptom. The brain will also shrink in volume.
Getting diagnosed by an expert is critical
The problem may not be dementia. It’s critical to see a specialist if you or a loved one suspects dementia of any type. Medications or interactions between medications can cause symptoms similar to dementia, therefore a doctor will investigate all medications taken by the patient. Infections such as a urinary tract infection can cause symptoms similar to dementia, as well. Also, as mentioned above, there are many types of dementia, so a specialist will need to sort out which, if any, type of dementia may be present.
There’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s or other dementias, but there may be different treatment options depending on which dementia is present. Some medications such as Aricept and Namenda are thought to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in many people. Also, recently a cancer drug has been shown in mice studies to reverse Alzheimer’s. This drug should soon be tested on people who have Alzheimer’s. Therefore, even with an AD diagnosis, there is reason to hope.
Many people ask about drug trials, especially if they are in a fairly early stage of the disease. The National Institutes of Health is a good place to look for current drug trial information.
For good health, most people - with or without dementia - are advised to eat a good diet with the right types of fat, keep their weight at a healthy level and exercise. Keeping the mind nimble by learning new skills is also important, and many people feel that mind exercise helps them stay mentally sharp longer even after a dementia diagnosis. Stay tuned to HealthCentral/Alzheimer’s for updates on new research.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.