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Facts, cause, treatments, care for Alzheimer\'s

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General Facts:

  • Dementia is defined as “a deterioration of intellectual function and other cognitive skills, leading to a decline in the ability to perform activities of daily living” (Merck Manual of Geriatrics). Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia among older people. Other types of dementias include: Lewy Body Disease, Pick’s Disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, AIDS related dementia, dementia associated with Parkinson’s or Huntington’s Disease, multi-infarct dementia and others.

  • Scientists think up to 4 million Americans suffer from AD. Risk increases with age, but AD is not a normal part of aging.

  • AD is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found the characteristic amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles considered hallmarks of AD.

Cause:

  • Not yet fully understood.

  • Probably several factors involved.

  • Risk increases with age.

  • Family history is another risk factor, although in the most common form of AD occurring in late life, no obvious family pattern is seen.

  • Dementia symptoms can be caused by many physical and sometimes reversible factors, making it important to gain a thorough evaluation and rule out other causes.

Symptoms/diagnosis:

  • Definitive diagnosis requires observing plaques and tangles in brain tissue, which can be done in autopsy. However, doctors can diagnose AD correctly up to 90% of the time using complete medical history, medical tests to rule out other causes, neuropsychological tests, and brain scans.

  • Symptoms are gradual. Typically, the early stages are characterized by loss of recent memory, inability to learn and retain new information, language problems, mood swings, and personality changes.

  • Course varies widely from person to person. On average, AD patients live from 8-10 years from diagnosis.

Treatment/Care:

  • No current treatment can cure AD. Some drugs may help prevent symptoms from becoming worse (tacrine/Cognex, donepezil/Aricept, rivastigmine/Exelon, galantamine/Reminyl/Namenda).

  • Medicines can also be helpful in controlling behavioral symptoms.

  • Structure and routine help the person with Alzheimer’s. Supportive care can help the person and their caregiver.

  • Research shows that overall healthy lifestyle including exercise, low fat/Mediterranean diet, no smoking and moderate drinking may help prevent Alzheimer’s.

  • A lot of research is being conducted on additional medications, a vaccine, preventative measures such as diet, vitamins, curry, Omega 3s, and better diagnosis and imaging, particularly at early stages.

Help:

  • Caregivers are faced with great challenges and stress in caring for a family member or significant other with AD. Aging Wisely can help caregivers prepare and cope.

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