Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate, and carry out daily activities such as bathing and eating. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, individuals may also experience changes in personality and behavior. They may exhibit mood swings, express distrust in others, show increased stubbornness, and withdraw socially. They may become anxious or aggressive and behave inappropriately. The disease is the most common cause of severe intellectual impairment in older individuals and a primary reason for the placement of the elderly in nursing homes.
There are now more than 5.2 million people in the United States living with Alzheimer's disease. It is the most common form of dementia and is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. Although the illness usually develops in people age 65 or older, it is estimated that some 500,000 people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia. Over half a million Californians are affected by the illness. As the population ages, this number is expected to triple by the year 2050. One in eight baby boomers will develop the disease and half of all people 85 years and older.
At present, it is not known what causes Alzheimer's disease or how to prevent or cure it. However, there is often much that can be done to reduce symptoms, improve functioning, and aid the family in caring for the patient at home.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
gradual and progressive memory loss
difficulty in following directions and performing routine tasks
impaired judgement, reasoning, concentration, and orientation
confusion and restlessness
loss of the ability to care for one's self
Not all memory problems are due to Alzheimer's disease. Since many of the other memory problems can be improved or even cured, it is important to seek an evaluation by a physician.
Progression of the Disease
Alzheimer's disease advances at widely different rates. People with Alzheimer's die an average of four to six years after diagnosis, but the duration of the disease can vary from three to 20 years. The areas of the brain that control memory and thinking skills are affected first, but as the disease progresses, cells die in other regions of the brain. Eventually, the person with Alzheimer's will need complete care. If the individual has no other serious illness, the loss of brain function itself will cause death.
Although all the contributing factors may never be known, scientists have identified several common threads. They include:
Age. Alzheimer's usually affects people older than 65, but can, rarely, affect those younger than 40. Less than 5 percent of people between 65 and 74 have Alzheimer's. For people 85 and older, that number jumps to nearly 50 percent.
Heredity. Your risk of developing Alzheimer's appears to be slightly higher if a first-degree relative — parent, sister or brother — has the disease. Although the genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer's among families remain largely unexplained, researchers have identified a few genetic mutations that greatly increase risk in some families. Three genetic mutations are known to cause early-onset Alzheimer's. In addition, one form of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene increases your chance of developing late-onset Alzheimer's.
Sex. Women are more likely than men are to develop the disease, in part because they live longer.
Lifestyle. The same factors that put you at risk of heart disease, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, may also increase the likelihood that you'll develop Alzheimer's disease. Poorly controlled diabetes is another risk factor. And keeping your body fit isn't your only concern — you've got to exercise your mind as well. Some studies have suggested that remaining mentally active throughout your life, especially in your later years, reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
- Head injury. The observation that some ex-boxers eventually develop dementia suggests that serious traumatic injury to the head (for example, a concussion with a prolonged loss of consciousness) may be a risk factor for Alzheimer's. Several studies indicate a definite link between the two, but others show no link.
- Hormone replacement therapy. The exact role hormone replacement therapy may play in the development of dementia isn't yet clear. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, evidence seemed to show that estrogen supplements given after menopause could reduce the risk of dementia. But results from the large-scale Women's Health Initiative Memory Study indicated an increased risk of dementia for women taking estrogen after age 65. The verdict is not yet in on whether estrogen affects the risk of dementia if given at an earlier age.
People with Alzheimer's disease often experience a mixture of emotions — confusion, frustration, anger, fear, uncertainty, grief and depression. You can help a person cope with the disease by being there to listen, reassuring the person that life can still be enjoyed, providing unconditional love, and doing your best to help the person retain dignity and self-respect.
A calm and stable home environment reduces behavior problems. New situations, noise, large groups of people, being rushed or pressed to remember, or being asked to do complicated tasks can cause anxiety. As a person with Alzheimer's becomes upset, the ability to think clearly declines even more.
Providing care for a person with Alzheimer's disease is physically and emotionally demanding. Feelings of anger and guilt, frustration and discouragement, worry and grief, and social isolation are common. If you're a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's disease, you can help yourself by:
Asking friends or other family members for help when you need it
Taking care of your health
Learning as much about the disease as you can
Asking questions of doctors, social workers and others involved in the care of your loved one
Joining a support group
For further information and insight into the many resources being available to patients and their families throughout the State of California, please check the listings below.