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Alzheimer’s disease: A type of dementia

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1311dementiapostII-1What is dementia?
Dementia is a loss of brain function that occurs with certain diseases. Although there are many potential causes of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type. When we age and become forgetful, it is common to wonder what is normal and what is not. There are early and progressive symptoms that can indicate the potential onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

How many people have Alzheimer’s disease, and when does it begin?
It is estimated that 5.4 million Americans had Alzheimer’s disease in 2012. This includes 5.2 million people older than 65 and 200,000 people younger than 65. The likelihood of having Alzheimer’s disease increases with age. One in eight individuals older than 65, or 13 percent, has Alzheimer’s disease. And nearly half of people older than 85, or 45 percent, have Alzheimer’s disease. Because women in the United States generally live longer than men, women are more likely to develop this form of dementia.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease often starts with a gradual decrease in the ability to remember new information, and develops into a memory loss that disrupts a person’s ability to function in daily life. Other symptoms can include:

  • difficulty recalling words and names
  • trouble with speaking or writing
  • confusion with time or place
  • difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • impairment in planning or problem-solving
  • trouble understanding spatial relationships
  • misplacing things
  • reduced judgment
  • withdrawal
  • changes in mood and personality

It can be hard to pinpoint when the changes occur, because they increase gradually and slowly progress in the beginning. In a previous blog, I explain how many of these symptoms are also part of normal aging, but to a lesser degree.

Early diagnosis and genetic factors
There is no single test that can show whether a person has Alzheimer's. A complete medical evaluation is needed and normally includes a thorough medical history, mental status testing, a physical and neurological exam, and blood tests and brain imaging to rule out other causes of dementia-like symptoms.

There is increasing evidence that Alzheimer’s-related changes may occur in the brain as early as 20 years before symptoms appear. Research into biomarkers — biological predictors and indicators of disease, including changes in the brain and cerebrospinal fluid or blood — may eventually help diagnosis Alzheimer’s disease early on, before symptoms appear. In addition to being able to diagnose the disease, this research could also help with the development of new treatments.

Do genes play a role?
Only 1 percent of cases are caused by inheriting one of three gene defects. These genes are the amyloid precursor protein, as well as the presenilin 1 and presenilin 2 proteins. Though it is possible to be tested for these genes, thorough genetic counseling is recommended before considering such testing because of its many implications. People with one of these three genetic defects tend to have an early Alzheimer’s disease onset, often before age 65 and sometimes as early as 30.

Other risk factors
Those at elevated risk of later-onset Alzheimer’s disease (after age 65) include those with:

Other risk factors include cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as physical inactivity, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and obesity. In addition, those with a history of traumatic brain injury are at higher risk. It is important to know that having these risk factors does not necessarily mean that a person will get Alzheimer’s disease, just that the risk is higher.

Avoiding Alzheimer’s disease
Getting regular aerobic exercise, remaining mentally and socially active, and eating a diet low in saturated fats and rich in vegetables may have protective effects.

What treatments are available for Alzheimer’s disease?
Currently, doctors cannot prescribe medicine to cure or stop Alzheimer’s disease, though there are five medications approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration to temporarily improve symptoms. The effectiveness of these medications can vary.

Many people, nevertheless, live successfully with Alzheimer’s symptoms for an extended period of time. Even after an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, many are capable of making important decisions, experience enjoyable and meaningful relationships, create positive memories, and have an impact on the next generation.

What should I do if I think I might have Alzheimer’s disease?
Many things can cause cognitive impairment, and it is easy to confuse a treatable cause of cognitive decline with an untreatable cause. Because some types of dementia are treatable or reversible, it is important to see your physician if you are experiencing thinking problems. Even in those situations where dementia cannot be reversed, some of the most difficult symptoms can be addressed.

If you are interested in learning more about our mental health services, please contact us.

In a previous post, “Memory loss with aging,” Dr. Julie E. Redner examines normal memory changes that happen as we age. In December, meet Chuck Gottfried, husband and caregiver to Shay Reandeau, Ph.D., who is living each day with Alzheimer’s disease.

Specializing in neuropsychological and psychological evaluations, Julie Redner, Ph.D. sees individuals 16 years of age and older.