Right now, an estimated 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's, and that number is projected to climb to 16 million by 2050. As such, Alzheimer's stands out as one of the most common diseases in the country and is the sixth-leading cause of death.
It's natural to have questions about the symptoms of dementia. This is especially true if it runs in your family, if you're concerned about it affecting a friend or loved one, or if you think you, yourself may be showing signs of the disease.
Here's everything you need to know about what Alzheimer's is and how it manifests in people affected by it.
What Is Alzheimer's Disease?
While the terms "Alzheimer" and "dementia" are often used interchangeably, dementia is a broader term used to describe a general decline in mental ability and capacity. Alzheimer's, however, is the most common form of dementia.
Alzheimer's affects everyone differently, which means the symptoms of the condition vary according to who is experiencing it. In many cases, the condition comes on slowly and gradually rather than all at once.
- Decreased energy or drive to participate in usual activities
- Less interest in work and social activities
- Loss of recent memories: It's common for people with the early stages of the disease to forget conversations they just had, for example
- Problems with coordination
- Difficulty with everyday tasks
- Mood swings, depression, irritability and confusion
Alzheimer's comes in three stages: mild, moderate and severe. Dementia is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms become more severe as the disease progresses.
How Alzheimer's Works in the Brain
At its most basic level, Alzheimer's is caused by damaged brain cells. These damaged cells lose their ability to communicate with other brain cells and, thus, to govern normal thinking and behavior.
When you look at dementia as a whole, it's clear that different types of brain cell damage are responsible for different types of dementia. In the case of Alzheimer's disease, for example, brain cells are surrounded by high levels of proteins, which make it difficult for them to "talk" back and forth. This damage appears first in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
As such, memory loss is often one of the first and most apparent signs of Alzheimer's.
There is currently no single test designed to identify Alzheimer's. Instead, doctors diagnose the disease through a series of medical tests, physical examinations, laboratory tests and day-to-day examinations. When doctors conclude that a person has Alzheimer's, they'll generally conduct additional tests to determine the stage of the disease and devise an appropriate treatment method.
Alzheimer's Treatment and Care
Alzheimer's is not a curable disease, and the treatment for the condition depends, in large part, on the stage and severity of the dementia. In some cases, drug treatments can be used to treat Alzheimer's and improve both symptoms and quality of life.
In other situations, non-drug therapies, including memory training, physical exercise, and mental and social stimulation, can be used to support people who have Alzheimer's and decrease their symptoms.
The Risk Factors for Alzheimer's
Dementia has a series of unique risk factors. These include age, genetics and a series of factors related to a person's physical health, diet and overall fitness level.
Physical Risk Factors
Physical risk factors include a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight.
Recent studies have shown that regular physical activity can help lower the risk of some types of dementia. This is due, in large part, to the fact that exercise increases the oxygen flow to the brain, thus benefiting brain cells and helping them stay healthy.
Cardiovascular Risk Factors
Cardiovascular risk factors for dementia include any cardiovascular condition that damages the blood vessels anywhere in the body.
These may include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar stemming from Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Obesity is also a significant risk factor.
What you eat affects both your brain and your heart in the long term, and maintaining a healthy diet can help stave off Alzheimer's and other dementias. Today, doctors recommend eating a heart-healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, for example.
This diet is heavy in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, shellfish, olive oil, nuts and similar healthy fats. These nutrients help protect the brain and ensure you have the nutrients you need to stay healthy for years to come.
Living With Alzheimer's Disease
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, it can be easy to feel hopeless. It's important to remember, however, that living with dementia is possible, and that most people maintain a high quality of life for years after diagnosis.
In many cases, people affected by Alzheimer's live in independent living facilities for many years before eventually moving into a supported living community.
If you're interested in learning more about community living or assisted living, contact Heritage Villas today. We're happy to answer your questions and help you determine what's best for you at this stage of your (or your loved one's) life.