First described in the early 1900s by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, it is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that causes severe memory loss and difficulty thinking and eventually robs a person of the ability to perform even the simplest of tasks.
More than 5 million people in the U.S. live with Alzheimer’s disease, and it is the seventh leading cause of death. It afflicts one in eight people age 65 and older and one in two people older than 85. Few families are untouched by this disease.
Our brains, like all organs in our bodies, change as we age. Slower thinking and some memory loss occur in all of us the longer we live. Serious memory loss, confusion and inability to perform simple tasks are not normal, but reflect a more severe deterioration of our brain cells, of which there are more than 100 billion in the average adult brain.
The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, but it is thought to be associated with genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors.
Abnormal structures called plaques and tangles have been identified in and around brain cells in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. They are thought to block communication between cells and lead to their destruction. Unlike other cells in our body, brain cells regenerate very slowly, if at all, allowing the continued progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Various stages of Alzheimer’s disease have been identified and described as follows:
• Early: Increasing memory problems
• Mild: Increasing memory loss, with problems such as getting lost, trouble handling money and paying bills, repetition of questions and poor judgment
• Moderate: Difficulty recognizing family and friends, inability to learn new things, and trouble with tasks such as getting dressed
• Severe: Inability to communicate and complete dependence on others for care
Although there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, several drugs have been approved for the treatment of its symptoms. These drugs help maintain memory, thinking and some behavioral skills, but they don’t change the disease process and may help for only a few months to a few years.
Be proactive to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease:
• Keep your cholesterol level normal or below.
• Boost your vitamin D level by sun exposure, appropriate foods or vitamin supplements.
• Exercise your brain by playing cards or working crossword puzzles.
• Maintain social contact with friends or relatives.
• Keep physically active.
Those who are close to someone with Alzheimer’s disease understand the tremendous toll it takes emotionally, physically and financially. Caregivers can be helped by a support network of family and friends. Organized support groups, such as the Alzheimer’s Association (www.alz.org), are also available and can offer much-needed advice for those caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.
Much research is being done throughout the scientific community to develop a successful treatment and, ultimately, a cure.
• Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. A doctor with 36 years’ experience, he invites readers to view all of his previous articles at his Web site or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.