How Does Alzheimer’s Affect The Body’s Systems?
Alzheimer’s disease is more commonly known to affect cognitive function, but it can also have an impact on other bodily systems as well. While it is a devastating disease, it’s important to understand what it is and its effect on the body.
What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that occurs when nerve cells in the brain die. It can lead to impaired memory, thinking and behavior as well as confusion. Symptoms continue to get worse and may grow severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.
It is named after the German physician Dr. Alois Alzheimer who first discovered this disease in 1906.
It accounts for roughly 60-80% of dementia cases. Dementia is a general term to classify a decline in mental ability that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease which is caused by complex brain changes following cell damage.
One of the most common early symptoms is difficulty remembering new information because the disease typically impacts that part of the brain first. As Alzheimer’s advances, symptoms get worse and can eventually lead to difficulty with speaking, swallowing and walking. Below are some of the most common symptoms:
- Problems with memory and thinking
- Personality changes
- Problems with judgement
- Trouble communication, such as not making sense when talking
- Problems following directions
- Problems with spatial awareness, meaning not knowing how objects around you relate to you
- Lack of interest or concern with other people
- Forgetting who people are, including children and spouse
- Misplacing things
- Trouble doing familiar tasks
It is not a normal part of aging. The greatest risk factor is increasing age, with the majority of people who have it being age 65 and older. But there are about 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 who have it. It is most often caused by:
- Age and family history
- Certain genes
- Abnormal protein deposits in the brain
- Environmental factors
- Problems with the immune system
It is often diagnosed by a healthcare provider ruling out other conditions first. A thorough exam of the nervous system will be conducted. A doctor will also do a complete health history, a mental status test as well as lab work and possibly brain imaging tests like a CT or MRI.
There is unfortunately no cure, but there are treatments that can temporarily slow symptoms from worsening and improve quality of life for those who have it.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect The Digestive System?
Researchers have found a connection between the microorganisms in our gastrointestinal system to a variety of health conditions including Alzheimer’s disease. The intestinal flora can produce something called amyloid, which enters the blood circulation and crosses the blood-brain barrier to get into the brain.
The accumulation of amyloid plaques between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease. There is also a component of bacterial cell membranes known as lipopolysaccharides that can get into the body’s bloodstream and activate inflammatory processes which contribute to Alzheimer’s.
The risk can be reduced by eating a plant-based diet rich in fruit and vegetables and high in fiber. The Mediterranean Diet is a popular one that has been shown to reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk. Black and green tea can also help support gut health.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect The Respiratory System?
Breathing problems aren’t normal, but they are quite common in older people, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease. It can be caused by a number of conditions, including:
- Diet and exercise
- Blood clot
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Heart failure
Breathing issues can be prevented by avoiding sudden temperature changes, air pollution, pollen, dust, cigarette smoke and chemical fragrances.
Doing breathing exercises can help get as much air in the lungs as possible. One way to do this is to sit up straight. Then breathe in through the nose, purse lips and then breathe out slowly. Try to breathe out twice as long as you breathed in.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect The Nervous System?
The nervous system is the center of all mental activity including thought, learning and memory. It works with the endocrine system to regulate and maintain homeostasis in the body.
Alzheimer’s disease leads to issues in the nervous system including cognitive function such as problems with memory, thinking or behavior as well as confusion and judgement. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble doing familiar tasks and often misplace things.
Alzheimer’s disease mostly affects the brain and nervous system progressively getting worse over time.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect The Brain?
A healthy brain contains billions of neurons, which are specialized cells that process and transmit information between different parts of the brain to the muscles and organs of the body via electrical and chemical signals (2). Alzheimer’s disease disrupts this communication. This ultimately results in loss of function and cell death.
The brain typically shrinks to some degree as a person ages, but it doesn’t actually lose neurons in large numbers. In Alzheimer’s disease the damage is larger. Neurons stop functioning and lose connection with other neurons affecting communication.
It first starts with destroying neurons that are involved in memory and eventually affects areas in the brain responsible for language, reasoning and social behavior. Overtime, a person may lose his or her ability to live and function independently.
People with Alzheimer’s may also experience vascular problems that may lead to reduced blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This results in inflammation which adds further vascular problems.
How Does Alzheimer’s Affect You Physically?
Alzheimer’s doesn’t just affect a person mentally, it can also affect a person physically too. Some people may end up with physical problems before experiencing serious memory loss. It can affect the way a person walks and talks as well as the issues listed below (1):
- Loss of balance
- Loss of coordination
- Stiff muscles
- Shuffling or dragging feet when walking
- Trouble standing
- Trouble sitting in a chair
- Weak muscles
- Trouble with sleep
- Trouble controlling your bladder or bowels
- Uncontrollable twitches
Oftentimes people with Alzheimer’s have trouble taking care of themselves, even basic necessities like washing their hair and their body, brushing teeth and changing clothes.
Some people even have trouble chewing food and swallowing. This could lead to dehydration and malnourishment.