Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive form of dementia. Dementia is a broader term for conditions caused by brain injuries or diseases that negatively affect your memory, thinking, and behavior. These changes interfere with daily living.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Most people with the disease are diagnosed after age 65. If you’re diagnosed with it before then, it’s generally referred to as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Everyone has episodes of forgetfulness from time to time. But people with Alzheimer’s disease display certain ongoing behaviors and symptoms, which worsen over time. These can include:
- memory loss affecting your daily activities, such as your ability to keep appointments
- trouble with familiar tasks, such as using a microwave
- difficulties with problem solving
- difficulties with speech or writing
- disorientation to time or place
- decreased judgment
- decreased personal hygiene
- mood and personality changes
- withdrawal from friends, family, and community
Causes and risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease
Experts haven’t determined a single cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but they have identified certain risk factors. For example, these risk factors affect your chances of developing it:
- Age: Most people who develop Alzheimer’s disease are 65 years of age or older.
- Family history: If you have an immediate family member who has developed the condition, you’re more likely to get it too.
- Genetics: Certain genes have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease
Having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean that you’ll develop Alzheimer’s disease. Both genetic and environmental factors likely play a role. Talk to your doctor to learn more about your risk of developing the condition.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease
The only definitive way to diagnose someone with Alzheimer’s disease is to examine their brain tissue after death. But your doctor can use other examinations and tests to assess your cognitive faculties, diagnose dementia, and rule out other conditions.
They will likely start by taking a medical history. They may ask you about:
- your symptoms
- your family medical history
- other health conditions that you have now or in the past
- medications that you’re taking now or in the past
- your diet, alcohol intake, or other lifestyle habits
They may also conduct mental status tests. This can help them assess your short-term memory, long-term memory, and orientation to place and time. For example, they may ask you:
- what day it is
- who the president is
- to remember and recall a short list of words
They will likely conduct a physical exam, too. For example, they may check your blood pressure, assess your heart rate, and take your temperature. In some cases, they may collect urine or blood samples for testing in a laboratory.
They may also conduct a neurological exam to exclude other possible diagnoses, such as Parkinson’s disease or stroke. They will check your reflexes, muscle tone, and speech. They may also order brain-imaging studies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Treating Alzheimer’s disease
There’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But your doctor can recommend medications and behavior modifications to help ease your symptoms and delay the progression of the disease as long as possible. Talk to your doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you. Each patient is different.
For early- to moderate-stage Alzheimer’s, your doctor may prescribe medications such as donepezil (Aricept) or rivastigmine (Exelon). These can help maintain high levels acetylcholine in your brain. This is a type of neurotransmitter. It can help aid your memory.
To treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, your doctor may prescribe donepezil (Aricept) or memantine (Namenda). These can help moderate your glutamate levels. They may help slow down the progression of your symptoms.
Your doctor may also recommend antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or antipsychotics to help treat depression, restlessness, aggression, agitation, or hallucinations.
Some people also believe that vitamin E can help. Always ask your doctor before taking vitamin E or any other supplements. It can interfere with some of the medications used to treat the disease.
Lifestyle changes may also help you manage your condition. For example, your doctor might help you and your loved ones develop strategies to help you:
- focus on tasks
- limit confusion
- avoid confrontation
- get enough rest every day
- stay calm
Before deciding on a treatment plan, talk to your doctor. Ask them about the choices available to you. They can help you weigh the potential benefits and risks of different treatment options.