Dx Focus: What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Brooke Phillips, CWCMS
Editor | Shield HealthCare
07/15/13  11:13 PM PST
Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that causes brain cells to degenerate and die, which leads to a decline in memory function and thinking skills.  Most individuals with the disease have “late-onset” Alzheimer’s, which begins to develop after reaching age 65.  Currently, there are over 5 million Americans suffering from this condition.

The disease is progressive and its symptoms move from mild to severe.  Some of the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease look similar to those commonly expected with aging.  However, memory loss caused by nerve damage happens with regularity and gets worse over time, ultimately resulting in losing the ability to talk, walk and even swallow.

Here are a few comparisons:

Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease vs. Age-related Changes

  • Warning Sign: Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Age-related Change: Forgetting names or appointments and remembering them later
  • Warning Sign: Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Age-related Change: Making occasional errors when balancing a checkbook
  • Warning Sign: Difficulty completing very familiar and routine tasks
  • Age-related Change: Occasionally needing help with electronic devices or appliances
  • Warning Sign: Confusion with time or place
  • Age-related Change: Getting confused about the day of the week and figuring it out later
  • Warning Sign: Trouble with visual images and spatial relationships
  • Age-related Change: Vision changes related to cataracts
  • Warning Sign: New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Age-related Change: Sometimes having problems finding the right word
  • Warning Sign: Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Age-related Change: Occasionally misplacing things and retracing steps to find them
  • Warning Sign: Decreased or poor judgment
  • Age-related Change: Making a bad decision once in a while
  • Warning Sign: Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Age-related Change: Sometimes feeling weary of work, family and social obligations
  • Warning Sign: Changes in mood and personality
  • Age-related Change: Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted

There is no easy way to diagnose a patient with Alzheimer’s; professionals rely greatly on any reported changes in behaviors, which caregivers will have to monitor and which will be more evident as the condition progresses.  To help evaluate mental function and short-term memory conditions, doctors may administer mental status tests.  Neurological exams and brain scans are primarily used to rule out other problems – such as stroke or tumor.

Researchers are unsure of what causes Alzheimer’s disease, though genetics are linked to “early-onset” Familial Alzheimer’s disease (or FAD).  Although a cure has not been identified, there are ways to help manage its effects.

  • Medication can be prescribed to help slow the decline of mental functions and memory loss, while other drugs (such as anti-depressants and sleep aids) can be given to help with certain behavioral problems.
  • Individuals with mild cases of Alzheimer’s may maintain muscle strength and coordination by participating in repetitive activities such as walking and weeding.
  • Sensory therapies can help improve mood and reduce anxiety while promoting a sense of calm.
  • Incontinence aids can help with routine bathroom functions and help prevent infections that may lead to death.
  • Nutrition therapies, whether oral or enteral, can help meet dietary needs.

It is important to know that the average length of survival after being diagnosed is only 3–9 years. An individual’s quality of life during this time will depend greatly on the care that a patient receives.

For more information on the disease or how to care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, visit any of the following sources:  WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Alzheimer’s Association.

This article was written by a contributing author at Shield HealthCare.

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