Alzheimer disease affects the brain, causing memory problems and eventually severe problems with mental function. It gets worse over time, and people with Alzheimer disease have gradual memory loss, as well as loss of judgment, trouble concentrating, loss of language skills, personality changes, and a decline in the ability to learn new tasks. In advanced stages, people with Alzheimer disease may lose all memory and mental abilities.
Alzheimer disease is the most common form of dementia. About 5 million Americans have Alzheimer disease, and this number is expected to grow as the population gets older. The disease progress is different for each person. If Alzheimer disease comes on quickly, it usually gets worse quickly. If it has been slow to get worse, it will often continue slowly.
Alzheimer disease symptoms happen because the disease kills brain cells. In a healthy brain, billions of neurons create chemical and electrical signals that are relayed from cell to cell. They help a person think, remember, and feel. Neurotransmitters, brain chemicals, help these signals move from cell to cell. In people with Alzheimer disease, neurons in some places start to die, and the brain makes lower levels of neurotransmitters. That causes the brain to have problems with its signals.
There is no cure for Alzheimer disease, but medicines can help slow the progression of the disease in some people. Herbs and supplements, and lifestyle adjustments, may also help reduce the risk or improve quality of life.
Signs and Symptoms
The early symptoms of Alzheimer disease can be missed because people may think they are due to "natural aging." The following are common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer disease:
- Memory loss that gets worse, starting with forgetting recent events and new information, progressing to not recognizing friends and family members
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty understanding words, completing sentences, or finding the right words
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Aggression, agitation, anxiety, restlessness
- Distrusting others
- Withdrawal, disinterest, hostility, or loss of inhibitions
- Problems with movement or coordination
- Muscle stiffness, shuffling or dragging feet while walking
- Insomnia or change in sleep patterns
- Weight loss
- Muscle twitching or seizures
Researchers are not sure what causes Alzheimer disease. Genetics and the environmental factors may both contribute. Recent research indicates that free radicals (molecules that damage cells and DNA) may play a role.
The brains of people with Alzheimer disease have a buildup of two types of proteins. Clumps of abnormal cells called plaques, are made of beta-amyloid protein. These plaques build up between neurons and may stop them from communicating with each other. Inside nerve cells are tangles, made of twisted tau protein. The brain needs tau protein to function, but in people with Alzheimer disease the protein gets twisted, which may damage brain cells.
People with the APOE-e4 gene are more likely to develop Alzheimer disease, it is known as a "risk gene" for the condition. But scientists think other genes may be involved. And even people without inherited genes for the disease can get Alzheimer disease.
The causes and risk factors linked to Alzheimer disease are not entirely clear but include:
- Family history of Alzheimer disease
- Older age. The risk of getting Alzheimer disease doubles every 5 years after age 65.
- Long-term high blood pressure
- Heart disease
- History of head trauma. One or more serious blows to the head may put a person at increased risk.
- Downs syndrome
- Education level. People with higher levels of education are less likely to develop Alzheimer disease.
There is no single test for Alzheimer disease. A true diagnosis can be made only after a person dies and an autopsy is done on the brain.
However, Alzheimer disease usually has a pattern of symptoms. A doctor will start by ruling out other possible causes. The doctor will ask questions about medical history and symptoms and do a physical exam, including a neurological exam.
The following tests may also be used:
- Mental status evaluation. To test memory and attention span. It can also show any problems in problem-solving, social, and language skills.
- Genetic test. Using a blood test for the APOE-e4 gene. Having the gene may suggest Alzheimer disease, but it does not always mean someone has the disease.
- Imaging tests such as CT, MRI, or PET scans.
In the early stages, brain scans may be normal. In later stages, an MRI may show certain brain areas have gotten smaller. While the scans do not confirm the diagnosis of Alzheimer disease, they rule out other causes of dementia, such as stroke and tumor.
No one knows exactly how to prevent Alzheimer disease, but eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly help.
- Eating more fatty, cold-water fish, such as tuna and salmon, may lower your risk of dementia. Fish have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the heart and the brain. Eating fish at least 2 to 3 times per week provides a healthy amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Antioxidants, such as vitamins A, E, and C (found in darkly colored fruits and vegetables), may help prevent damage caused by free radicals.
- Keeping blood pressure levels normal may reduce the risk for Alzheimer disease.
- Keeping mentally and socially active may help delay the start or slow the progression of Alzheimer disease.
The goals in treating Alzheimer disease are to:
- Slow progression of the disease
- Manage behavior problems, confusion, and agitation
- Provide a safe living environment
- Support family members and other caregivers
There is no cure for Alzheimer disease. The most promising treatments include lifestyle changes and medications.
Studies show the following lifestyle changes may help improve behavior in people with Alzheimer disease:
- A regular walk with a caregiver or trusted companion may improve communication skills and reduce the chance of wandering.
- Bright light therapy may reduce insomnia and wandering.
- Calming music may reduce wandering and restlessness, boost brain chemicals, and improve behavior.
- Pets can sometimes help people improve behavior.
- Relaxation training and other exercises that require focused attention may help boost social interaction and make it easier to do tasks.
- The Safe Return Program, started by the Alzheimer's Association, encourages identification bracelets, wallet cards, and clothing labels for people with Alzheimer disease. Information is stored in a national database and given to authorities when a person is reported missing.
Several drugs are available to help slow the progression of Alzheimer disease and possibly improve mental function.
Cholinesterase inhibitors: increase the amount of acetylcholine in the brain. Side effects can include nausea, fatigue, and diarrhea. This class of drugs includes:
- Donepezil (Aricept)
- Rivastigmine (Exelon)
- Galantamine (Razadyne, formerly called Reminyl)
Memantine (Namenda): This drug works by regulating a chemical messenger called glutamate, which is involved in information storage and retrieval in the brain. Side effects may include headache, constipation, confusion, and dizziness. It is the only drug approved for treatment of moderate-to-severe Alzheimer disease.
The following medications may also ease the symptoms related to Alzheimer disease:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressants that boost a brain chemical called serotonin. They are used to treat depression that often happens in the early stages of Alzheimer disease.
- Methylphenidate (Concerta) is a stimulant that is often prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It is sometimes used to treat withdrawal and apathy in people with Alzheimer disease.
- Carbamazepine is an anti-seizure drug that stabilizes sodium levels in the brain. It is sometimes used to treat agitation in people with Alzheimer disease.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
People with Alzheimer disease may need help with their diet. They often forget to eat and drink and can get dehydrated.
Follow these tips for a healthy diet:
- Eat antioxidant foods, including fruits (such as blueberries, cherries, and tomatoes) and vegetables (such as squash and bell peppers).
- Eat foods high in B-vitamins and calcium, such as almonds, beans, whole grains, dark leafy greens (such as spinach and kale), and sea vegetables such as kelp and dulse.
- Eat more high-fiber foods, including beans, oats, and root vegetables (such as potatoes and yams).
- Avoid refined foods such as white breads, pastas, and especially sugar.
- Eat fewer red meats and more lean meats and cold-water fish.
- Use healthy oils in foods, such as olive oil
- Reduce or eliminate trans-fats, found in commercially-baked goods, such as cookies, crackers, cakes, French fries, onion rings, donuts, processed foods, and margarine.
- DO NOT smoke.
- Drink 6 to 8 glasses of filtered water daily.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes daily, 5 days a week.
Always tell you doctor about any herb or dietary supplement you are taking, because some could interact with other medicines. These supplements may help with some symptoms of Alzheimer disease, although more research is needed:
- Phosphatidylserine shows promise in several studies. Phosphatidylserine is a substance that is found in the brain. It may raise levels of brain chemicals involved with memory, according to several studies. It may work best in people with mild symptoms, and may stop working after about 16 weeks. DO NOT take phosphatidylserine if you are taking blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin. Use caution if taking it with ginkgo. In both cases, your risk of bleeding may increase. Phosphatidylserine may cause sleeplessness in some people. It may interact with other medicines for Alzheimer disease and glaucoma. Ask your doctor before taking it.
- Antioxidants may protect against developing dementia. They may even slow the progression of dementia. In some, but not all, studies, vitamin E combined with Aricept seemed to slow mental decline in people with Alzheimer disease. Another antioxidant, coenzyme Q10, may help the brain get more oxygen. It may also help blood clot, so blood-thinners may not work as well as they should. The skins of dark berries also provide valuable antioxidants. Try eating half a cup of frozen blueberries daily, freezing them helps your body better absorb the antioxidants.
- Vitamins: biotin (300 mcg); B1 (50 to 100 mg), B2 (50 mg), B6 (50 to 100 mg), B12 (100 to 1,000 mcg), folic acid (400 to 1,000 mcg). No scientific evidence shows a direct benefit, but B12 and folic acid lower the levels of an amino acid in the blood that is often high in people with Alzheimer disease. Shots of B12 may work better than pills.
- Zinc (30 to 50 mg per day) is often low in elderly people, and may help improve memory. Zinc can sometimes displace copper in the body, and at higher than 45 mg, can potentially weaken the immune system over time.
Herbs may strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your health care provider before starting treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, or teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, you should make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 to 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 to 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 to 4 cups per day.
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) shows some evidence for treating early Alzheimer disease and vascular dementia. However, one large randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that ginkgo did not prevent Alzheimer disease or dementia. If you are taking blood-thinning medication, such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin, DO NOT use ginkgo without your doctor's supervision.
- Huperzine A, a chemical made from the plant Huperzia serrata, may improve memory in both vascular and Alzheimer dementia, according to several studies in China. More research is needed. Huperzine A may slow your heart rate and can interact with many medications. DO NOT take huperzine A if you have liver disease, or if you are about to have anesthesia. Huperzine A may be associated with gastrointestinal blockage. There is also concern that Huperzine A may worsen emphysema. Talk to your doctor before taking huperzine A if you already take medicine to treat Alzheimer disease.
- American ginseng ((Panax quinquefolium) improves blood flow to the brain. Use with caution if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or a history of hormone-sensitive conditions, and talk to your doctor before combining ginseng with gingko.
- One study found that lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) helped improve mental function in people with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer disease. Lemon balm may act like a mild sedative.
- Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) leaf extract, called Brahmi, is used in Ayurvedic or Indian medicine to improve brain function and learning. However, no scientific studies have looked at bacopa to see whether it might work for dementia. One study found that 300 mg per day for 12 weeks seemed to improve brain function in healthy people. Bacopa may slow your heart rate. People with stomach ulcers, intestinal problems, or emphysema should not tale bacopa.
- Vinpocetine (isolated from Vinca minor) may increase blood flow to the brain and help the brain use oxygen better. More research is needed. Vinpocetine may interact with blood-thinning medicines such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), and aspirin.
Small studies have shown that transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), a technique used in physical therapy and certain types of acupuncture, may improve memory and daily living skills in people with Alzheimer disease. More studies are needed.
Massage and Physical Therapy
People with Alzheimer disease become frustrated and anxious because they cannot communicate well with language. Using touch, or massage, as nonverbal communication may help. In one study, people with Alzheimer disease who got hand massages and were spoken to in a calming manner had lower pulse rates and did not engage in as much inappropriate behavior. Health care professionals think that massage may help not only because it is relaxing, but because it provides a form of social interaction.
Music therapy, using music to calm and heal, cannot slow or reverse dementia. But it may improve quality of life for both a person with Alzheimer disease and their caregiver. Clinical reports suggest that music therapy may reduce wandering and restlessness and increase chemicals in the brain that promote sleep and ease anxiety. Studies also show that listening to music improves mood.
Preliminary studies suggest aromatherapy, including lavendar may help alleviate agitation among people who have dementia.
Support for the Caregiver
Studies suggest that caregivers who receive emotional support have better quality of life, which also benefits the people they care for.
Alzheimer disease can lead to many complications, including:
- "Sundowning", withdrawal or agitation in the evening
- Malnutrition and dehydration
- Infection, from urinary tract infections or pneumonia
- Asphyxiation, stopped breathing
- Harmful or violent behavior toward self or others
- Poor health and support due to caregiver burnout
- Physical and emotional abuse, including neglect
- Heart disease
Alzheimer disease gets worse over time, however, people with the disease may live for many years. Those with a long-standing history of high blood pressure are more likely to get worse faster.
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Review Date: 4/23/2015
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.