Alzheimer’s Vs. Dementia
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a decline in memory and mental ability so severe it interferes with everyday life. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. The average life span after diagnosis is about 4 to 8 years, but it varies from person-to-person. People have been known to live 20 years after diagnosis. This disease usually progresses in three stages.
Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease
In this stage, the person may live as they always have just with minor memory lapses. Delays when trying to pinpoint the right word for something or trouble remembering names are some examples. People are generally able to still work, interact socially, and function normally, but people close to them will begin to notice changes in their cognitive behavior.
This is the longest stage and can last for several years. As Alzheimer’s disease attacks the nerve cells in the brain, expressing emotion/thoughts and performing tasks can become difficult and frustrating. This is the stage you might notice the person getting angry or withdraw from mentally or socially challenging situations. They may need help choosing appropriate clothing, and they may wander and become lost. In this stage of Alzheimer’s disease, people may remember significant details about their life but have trouble performing routine tasks and controlling bodily functions.
This is the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, where individuals start losing the ability to respond to their environment. They can’t carry on a conversation and will eventually lose the ability to control their movements. Individuals in this stage need round-the-clock assistance with personal care, as they have become impaired physically. This includes walking, sitting, and swallowing.
Alzheimer’s Affect on the Brain
Scientists have been able to study the brain tissue of patients that suffered from Alzheimer’s. The disease essentially shrinks brain tissue. Shrinking occurs in the cortex – the area responsible for memory, thinking, and planning – and is especially severe in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the cortex that is mainly responsible for forming new memories. As far as actual brain tissue, clusters of protein fragments, called beta-amyloid, build up between nerve cells and create plaque. This plaque can block cells from signaling at synapses. Furthermore, dead nerve cells twist and cause tangles. Where tangles form, nutrients and other necessary proteins cannot move through cells, which eventually causes the cell to die. Tangles and plaque move through the cortex and worsens over time. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are some treatments available.
Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment
Although there is no cure available, research is ongoing and some medications can slow symptoms temporarily. Some drugs work by slowing down the process that destroys neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are what carry information from cell-to-cell. Excess glutamate can be released from damaged cells in Alzheimer’s disease, which can damage cells further. Some drugs available regulate the release of glutamate, slowing the process down. These drugs can only slow down the symptoms, not the underlying disease. There also are ways to lower your risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be emotionally and financially draining. The Alzheimer’s Association has created a resource to help develop an action plan to help caregivers cope and navigate through the disease. You can find it here.
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