Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that causes brain cells to die over time. Over a slow progression, those with Alzheimer’s will experience a continual decline in their thinking, behavioral, and social skills. It can be hard to notice Alzheimer’s signs at first, as most common symptoms early on are things such as short-term memory loss, and even these don’t appear until several years in.
However, as the disease progresses, those suffering will develop severe memory loss, accompanied by an inability to carry out required daily activities. This decline in brain function only gets worse until complications from the disease result in death. The progressive memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s makes it a particularly heart-breaking disease to watch.
The primary symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. It’s common for patients to notice this decline in their ability to recall recent events, but oftentimes it’s friends or family who first see a distinct change.
While minor memory loss is perfectly normal in healthy adults, there are a few vital signs to keep in mind if you’re worried about Alzheimer’s. These include the need for repeated statements one after another, getting lost in familiar places, or misplacing objects in illogical locations.
Other symptoms may include difficulty finding the correct name for everyday objects, or an inability to express thoughts and feelings. More advanced Alzheimer’s also leads to distinct behavioral changes, sometimes increasing mood swings, distrust in others, wandering, loss of inhibitions, or social withdrawal.
That said, Alzheimer’s patients will also generally retain certain skills for long into the cognitive decline. This can include things such as singing, dancing, crafting, telling stories, or even reading.
While much more research is needed to uncover precisely what causes Alzheimer’s, researchers have started to determine what plays a vital role. The current best hypothesis is that Alzheimer’s is caused by a combination of complex genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors interacting over a long period.
While we may not know why it happens, research shows that the core issue in Alzheimer’s is a reduced ability of brain proteins to function properly. This, in turn, damages neurons, which disrupts brain function, and eventually leads to death. The loss of neurons spreads in a somewhat predictable pattern, and by the late stages of the disease, overall brain size has shrunk dramatically.
The most significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age, with the rate of developing Alzheimer’s increasing from two new diagnoses per 1000 at the age of 74, to 37 new diagnoses per 1000 for those 85 and older. Genetics also play an important but misunderstood role. Research shows the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is somewhat higher if an immediate family member had the disease, but most of how this relationship functions is still mysterious.
Other significant risk factors of developing Alzheimer’s include Down Syndrome, past head trauma, long-term difficulty sleeping, obesity, high blood pressure, or an aversion to social interaction. It’s worth noting that more women than men have Alzheimer’s, but researchers agree this is primarily because women, on average, live longer than men.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, with around 5.5 million people in the US alone affected by this disease. Broader estimates suggest about 44 million people around the world are currently living with this terrible condition.
Given the terminal diagnosis, it’s extremely important to focus on new and effective ways to increase comfort, while potentially slowing any disease progression. If you are worried that you or a loved one may be developing Alzheimer’s, don’t wait to contact your doctor. Only they can provide the most relevant information and action plan moving forward.