About Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that develops gradually and is characterized by the destruction of nerve cells, especially in the areas of the brain vital to memory and learning. The pathological changes in the Alzheimer's brain include deterioration and loss of neurons (nerve cells) leading to brain atrophy (shrinkage), and the abnormal accumulation of proteins forming amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. In addition, neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine, glutamate, and serotonin are affected in Alzheimer's Disease. While it is now clear that AD develops as a result of a complex cascade of events that take place over many years inside the brain, the cause (or causes) remains unknown.

The symptoms of AD become more evident as the client ages however, they may occur as early as age 40 (in rare cases, even younger). The risk of AD doubles every five years beyond age 65. The course of the disease varies from person to person. In some people the disease progresses quickly, reaching the end stage in only five years, while others may have it for as long as 20 years. The most common cause of death for people who survive to the end stage of AD is pneumonia.

The type, severity, sequence, and progression of mental changes vary widely. The early symptoms of AD are often dismissed as natural signs of aging. AD typically begins with forgetfulness, loss of concentration and a decline in problem-solving ability. Confusion and restlessness may also occur. As the illness progresses, AD destroys cognition and ability to function and changes personality.
In contrast to the milder signs of memory loss associated with normal aging and mild cognitive impairment, changes in memory associated with AD and the other primary dementias are more pervasive, affecting orientation, mood, behavior, language, speech, movement and coordination. These changes differ from normal aging and mild cognitive impairment in quantity and quality.
Many people aren't aware that AD does actually affect physical functioning. It is now known that AD begins to have subtle effects on motor function, muscle tone and balance even in the earliest stages of the illness. If people survive until the late stages of AD, the illness affects all areas of their brains and they ultimately become incapable of performing even the most basic physical functions. This makes AD perhaps the most devastating disease of the elderly.
A commonly believed myth that prevents people from seeking a diagnostic evaluation even for severe memory problems is that there is no point going to a doctor because nothing can be done. In fact, there are many ways to relieve the suffering of people with AD and their families. Drug treatments are now available to manage some of the symptoms of AD. While no currently available drugs can prevent or halt the underlying disease process, advances in understanding Alzheimer's Disease may lead to such treatment in the future. In the meantime, researchers and clinicians are working to enhance the quality of life for both patients and caregivers by developing ways to improve behavioral management and caregiver skills.
Psychosocial interventions can reduce the impact of AD on the patient and the family. For people in the early or moderate stages of the disease, medication has become available that may alleviate some cognitive symptoms. In addition, some medications may help control behavioral symptoms such as sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, and depression that are frequently seen in the middle stages of AD. This makes it even more important to have a thorough diagnostic evaluation by well-trained medical specialists when someone seems to have significant changes in cognitive ability.
A common fear is that AD is inherited, and family members of patients are frequently concerned about their risk of getting AD themselves. Although geneticists are beginning to find chromosomal mutations in some families in which there are many cases of AD, these families are very rare--genetic factors are the sole determinant in fewer than 2% of the cases of AD. A variant of the ApoE protein called ApoE-4, located on chromosome 19, appears to increase the risk and lower the age of onset of AD. Nevertheless, while about two thirds of the cases of AD have at least one copy of this form of ApoE, almost one quarter of the normal elderly population do also.
Researchers today are actively searching for ways not only to increase longevity and disease-free aging but also to improve the quality of life of the aging population. Owing to the increase in life expectancy in modern societies and the fact that the risk of AD increases with age, many people currently face the prospect of suffering from dementia. A major focus of ongoing studies is to postpone, ameliorate, or prevent the onset of debilitating illnesses such as AD and to develop improved ways of helping the families of those who are afflicted.

For information about the diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease and other topics pertaining to the disease, please go to the link "FAQ" to the right or call the Alzheimer's Disease Association of Kern County at (661) 393-8871.

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