What is Alzheimer's?
- BRAIN HEALTH
- Content Team
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Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and the likelihood of us developing the disease grows as we get older. There is still much to learn about the disease, but recent research has given us an idea of how the disease forms and how it progresses through three major stages. There is no known cure for the disease and researchers still aren’t 100% sure how it develops. Here are some things you need to know about Alzheimer’s including how it’s diagnosed, the three main stages, and treatment options.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a neurological disease and a type of dementia that affects your memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms grow gradually and can become severe enough that mundane day-to-day activities become next to impossible without assistance. Unfortunately, it is the most common cause of dementia, with the disease accounting for 60-80% of dementia cases.
There was a time, not too long ago, that researchers and doctors believed that Alzheimer’s and its side effects were just an unwanted side effect of normal aging. However, this is no longer the case. Researchers believe that an increase in age is the greatest risk factor, but Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age.
How is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?
Before discussing how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, we should point out that Alzheimer’s disease can only be DEFINITIVELY diagnosed after death. They can do this by linking clinical measures with an examination of brain tissue in an autopsy. With that being said, to reach an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in living patients doctors may:
- Ask the patients’ family or friends questions about their overall health
- Conduct tests of memory, problem-solving, attention, counting, and language
- Carry out standard medical tests including blood and urine tests
- Perform brain scans such as computed tomography (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET). Doing this allows them to rule out other possible causes
A doctor may do these tests several times to fully understand what’s happening. These tests can also help diagnose other causes of memory problems such as a stroke, tumor, Parkinson’s disease, sleep deprivation, or non-Alzheimer’s dementia. If a primary care doctor suspects mild cognitive impairment or possible Alzheimer’s, he or she may refer the patient to a specialist who can provide a detailed diagnosis or further assessment.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect the Brain?
There are many molecular and cellular changes that take place in the brain of someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As these changes take a toll on the brain, symptoms of the disease begin to grow worse. Here are some of the main characteristics of the brain with Alzheimer’s and the effect these characteristics have on the brain:
- Amyloid plaques - Beta-amyloid 42 is thought to be very toxic and in the Alzheimer’s brain, abnormal levels of this protein clump together to form plaques that disrupt cell function
- Neurofibrillary tangles - Alzheimer’s causes a protein called tau, normally a healthy protein, to detach from microtubules and stick to other tau molecules. This creates tangles inside of neurons that block the neuron’s transport system
- Chronic inflammation - Researchers believe that inflammation may be caused by a buildup of glial cells. Microglia, a type of glial cell, engulfs and destroys waste and toxins in the healthy brain. However, in Alzheimer’s microglia fail to clear away waste, debris, and protein collections
- Neuronal connections - Connections between networks of neurons begin to break down which makes some regions of the brain shrink
Researchers are still trying to learn more about the disease. One thing is certain, Alzheimer’s has an incredibly negative effect on our brains.
What Is The Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
Dementia is an overall term used to describe symptoms that impact memory while Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia and gets worse with time. Both conditions can cause a decline in the ability to think, memory impairment, and communication impairment. Here are some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s that differ from other types of dementia:
- Impaired judgment
- Behavioral changes
The type of treatment needed for Alzheimer’s will also differ from the treatment options for other types of dementia. A doctor will be able to provide an accurate diagnosis, allowing the patient and their family to seek the right treatment plan. It should be noted that unfortunately, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s. Treatment options aim to slow the spread of the disease.
How Do You Treat Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s can be very complex and often treated with multiple different drugs depending on the stage of the disease. There are several prescription drugs that are currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Here are some of the drugs that are commonly used and the benefits they provide:
- Aricept - Prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine
- Exelon - Also prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine as well as butyrylcholine
- Namenda - Blocks the toxic effects associated with excess glutamate
- Namzaric - Prevents the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain
- Razadyne - Stimulates nicotinic receptors to release more acetylcholine in the brain
It should be noted that while these drugs have been approved by the FDA, they are not guaranteed cures to Alzheimer’s. More often than not, you will have to take multiple different drugs. The drugs are designed to slow the effects of Alzheimer’s and slow cognitive decline.
What Are The Alzheimer’s Disease Stages?
As we have mentioned several times already, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease grow worse over time. On average, a patient who receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis lives four to eight years after being diagnosed. There are four different stages of Alzheimer’s. The rate at which people go through these stages will differ person-to-person. Here are those stages:
- Preclinical Alzheimer’s disease - This stage happens years before a diagnosis. Changes in the brain related to Alzheimer’s begin years before any signs of the disease
- Early-stage Alzheimer’s - This stage is considered mild. Someone in this stage may have difficulties remembering names, performing tasks in social settings, losing valuable objects, or planning and organizing
- Middle-stage Alzheimer's - This stage is considered moderate. Someone in this stage may be forgetful of personal history, feel moody or withdrawn, experience confusion about where they are or what day it is, and require help to choose proper clothing for the season or occasion
- Late-stage Alzheimer's - This stage is considered severe. Someone in this stage may require around-the-clock assistance, lose awareness of their surroundings, have difficulties with physical abilities such as walking and sitting, have difficulty communicating, and may become vulnerable to illness
The person living with Alzheimer’s may not be able to initiate engagement as much during the late stage, but he or she can still benefit from interaction in ways that are appropriate, like listening to relaxing music or receiving reassurance through gentle touch
Supplements Can Help Support Brain Health
One substance that can help prevent cognitive dissonance, as well as other aging side-effects, is spermidine. This is because spermidine helps induce something called autophagy. This is the body’s process of replacing old and potentially damaged cell parts with newer, healthier ones, resulting in healthier cells. Autophagy literally means ‘self-eat.’
This process helps keep you feeling and looking young while also dramatically lowering your chances of developing aging diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. While it is possible to get your recommended daily intake of spermidine through your diet, it’s recommended to take supplements so you ensure you get the right dose. Simply taking your supplements with your dinner is a great way to remember to take spermidine supplements every night.