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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
The goals in treating Alzheimer disease are to:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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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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.
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