According to the Alzheimer's Association, in 2019, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's dementia. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States—and for those with family members of advancing age—a dreaded diagnosis. What follows is a brief overview of what the condition is and how it might be detected.
What is Alzheimer's?
Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible brain disorder that slowly erodes memory and thinking ability over the course of years. As the condition worsens in severity, it eventually robs the diagnosed from the ability to perform basic tasks before leading to death. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. Not all cases of dementia are caused by Alzheimer's, while other cases include Alzheimer's and other root causes.
The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who discovered the disease in 1906. He observed a woman who was experiencing memory loss, disorientation, hallucinations and, ultimately, untimely death at the age of 55. The post-mortem examination of the brain a variety of abnormalities. He found senile plaque and neurofibrallary tangles, characteristics that have come to define the condition since.
Advancement of Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's disease advances over the course of years and is rated on a scale of progression from mild, to moderate, to severe. Each stage has its own compounding symptoms.
Mild Alzheimer's usually lasts from 2 to 4 years. In these early stages, the symptoms include having less energy and drive to get things accomplished. Patients may be less interested in work and social activities and may spend more time at home than they used to. Memory loss begins in this stage, with diagnosed capable of forgetting conversations and events that just happened. They may have trouble putting their thoughts into words or understanding the things others are saying. They may have minor coordination problems or lose track of doing everyday tasks such as balancing a checkbook. They have rampant mood swings, ranging from severe depression to total disinterest. Finally, they may experience getting lost, unable to find their way on even the most familiar drives.
Moderate Alzheimer's can last from 2 to 10 years. In this stage, the symptoms begin to worsen. Memory issues become more prevalent. A patient may forget where they went to high school, or be unable to recognize close friends and family members. They fail to remember where they put things and can't seem to retrace their steps back to things they have lost.
Other symptoms include rambling speech, a hard time planning or problem-solving, and trouble sleeping. They may become angry or upset easily, or be under the delusion that caregivers are trying to hurt them. Some people with moderate Alzheimer's can begin to feel as if they are losing control over their lives, which can worsen symptoms of depression or other mood swings.
Finally, patients move into the severe stage of the disorder, which includes major confusion the inability to express themselves, remember, or process information. They may lose control of their bladder and bowels. They may be prone to extreme mood swings and have trouble moving on their own. Severe Alzheimer's can also lead to other issues such as weight loss, seizures, and skin infections.
Eventually, the disease may lead to being unable to swallow properly, which can lead to patients inhaling food through their windpipe rather than having it travel through the esophagus. This can lead to damage or infection of the lungs that may be deadly.
What can be done?
While there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, there are ways to support those with the condition in managing their symptoms. First, Alzheimer's must be properly identified. If you believe a loved one may be exhibiting signs of early Alzheimer's disease, they should see their family doctor or a neurologist.
The team of neurologists at Augusta Health Neurology—combine advanced specialized training with access to the latest tests and imaging equipment to provide superior care for patients dealing with a wide range of neurological symptoms and disorders—including Alzheimer's.