What Exactly Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

What Is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that damages the brain and causes dementia. It is dementia’s most common cause. The term dementia describes a group of symptoms which includes memory loss and difficulties with thinking, language and problem-solving.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after the doctor who first discovered it, Alois Alzheimer. It is a physical condition that affects the brain. An estimated 5.7 million people are living with Alzheimer’s in the United States today.

In Alzheimer’s disease, proteins in the brain build up and form structures called ‘tangles’ and ‘plaques.’ These structures lead to the loss of connections between the nerve cells. The nerve cells then eventually die, and this causes a loss of brain tissue.

People who have Alzheimer’s are also lacking some important chemicals in their brains. These chemicals usually help to transmit signals around the brain. So as there is a shortage of them in Alzheimer’s, the signals aren’t transmitted effectively. Some of the current treatments for Alzheimer’s can help to boost the levels of chemical messengers in the brain. This can help lessen some of the symptoms.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. This means it slowly worsens as more parts of the brain become damaged over time. As this happens, the symptoms a person experiences get more severe.

What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known.

We know that the process begins with parts of the brain shrinking (atrophy). This affects the function and structure of certain areas of the brain. What we don’t know is what causes this process to start. As well as the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that scientists have found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, there are also imbalances in a chemical called acetylcholine.

It’s also not uncommon to have some vascular damage in the brain with Alzheimer’s. All of this reduces the effectiveness of the healthy neurons and gradually destroys them. The first areas of the brain that are affected are the ones that are responsible for memories, but eventually, the damage spreads to other areas of the brain.

What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Early Stages

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease generally start off mildly, but worsen over time and begin to interfere with a person’s daily life.

There are some symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that are commonly experienced, but you need to remember that every person is unique and not everyone will experience the disease in the same way. It’s not often that two people with Alzheimer’s disease experience the condition in the exact same way.

For most people, Alzheimer’s begins with memory lapses. In particular, they may have difficulty with their short-term memory and struggle to recall recent events.

They may also have difficulty learning new information. These symptoms occur because the initial damage to the brain in Alzheimer’s is usually to an area called the hippocampus, which is vital for day-to-day memory.

The memory of significant events that happened a long time ago in someone’s life is often unaffected in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease becomes worse as the condition progresses and usually begins to interfere with daily life.

Here are some common situations that people with the early stages of Alzheimer’s experience:

  • Losing important items such as their keys or glasses around their home
  • Struggling to find the correct word in a conversation
  • Forgetting people’s names
  • Forgetting recent conversations or events
  • Getting lost in previously familiar places or on a familiar journey
  • Forgetting appointments or anniversaries

Memory difficulties are typically the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but someone with the condition will also go on to develop problems with other aspects of their thinking, perception, reasoning, and communication.

They might develop problems with:

  • Language – They may start struggling to follow a conversation. They may also begin repeating themselves.
  • Visuospatial skills – They can have problems judging distances. It can also affect their ability to see objects in three dimensions. They often struggle to navigate stairs or park cars.
  • Planning, organizing, and concentration – This can include having difficulty making decisions, solving problems or carrying out a succession of tasks.
  • Orientation – They may become confused and lose track of the date or day.

It’s also common to experience mood changes in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. They often become anxious, depressed or irritable. Some people withdraw and start to lose interest in activities and hobbies that they usually enjoy.

Later stages

As Alzheimer’s progresses, all of the symptoms that are experienced in the earlier stages become more severe.

A person in the later stages of Alzheimer’s will need more daily support from those around them. Some people start to experience delusions and sometimes even see or hear things which are not there.

Many people with Alzheimer’s disease also develop behaviors that are unusual for them. These can include agitation, repeating themselves, calling out, disturbed sleep patterns or aggressive reactions. These behaviors can be distressing or challenging for the person and the people that care for them.

It’s important to maintain a constant dialogue with their healthcare professionals as treatment and management of their condition might need to be adjusted as their disease progresses.

In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the person may become much less aware of the world around them. They could develop difficulties with eating or walking unaided. They often become increasingly frail. Eventually, the person will need assistance with all of their daily tasks, usually including washing and toileting.

Next page: What is Atypical Alzheimer’s? How quickly does Alzheimer’s progress? And more.

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