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Alzheimer's disease is a brain disease that causes loss of memory and mental function. It gets worse in stages, and people with Alzheimer's have gradual memory loss as well as loss of judgment, difficulty concentrating, loss of language skills, personality changes, and a decline in the ability to learn new tasks. In advanced stages, people with Alzheimer's can lose all memory and mental abilities.
Alzheimer's is the most common kind of dementia. About 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's, and this number is expected to grow as the population gets older. How it progresses is different for each person. If Alzheimer's develops rapidly, it usually gets worse rapidly. If it has been slow to get worse, it will likely continue on a slow course.
Alzheimer's symptoms happen because the disease kills brain cells. In a healthy brain, billions of neurons create chemical and electrical signals that are relayed from cell to cell and help a person think, remember, and feel. Neurotransmitters -- brain chemicals -- help these signals move from cell to cell. In people with Alzheimer's, neurons in certain places start to die, causing lower levels of neurotransmitters to be produced. That causes the brain to have problems with its signals.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but there are some medications that can help slow the progression of the disease in some people. Some herbs and supplements, and lifestyle adjustments, may help reduce the risk or improve quality of life.
The early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can be missed because they look like the ones that many people attribute to "natural aging." The following are the most common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's:
Researchers aren't sure what causes Alzheimer's disease. Both genetics and the environment may combine in some cases. Recent research indicates that free radicals (molecules that can cause oxidation and damage cells and DNA) may play a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's is characterized by the buildup in the brain of two types of proteins. Clumps of abnormal cells are called plaques, made of beta-amyloid protein. These plaques build up between neurons and may stop them from communicating with each other. Inside nerve cells are tangles, made of twisted tau protein. The brain needs tau protein to function, but in people with Alzheimer's the protein becomes twisted, which may cause damage to brain cells.
People with the APOE-e4 gene are more likely to develop Alzheimer's -- it's known as a "risk gene" for the condition. But scientists think there may be many more genes involved. And even people without inherited genes for the disease can get Alzheimer's.
The causes and risk factors associated with Alzheimer's disease are not entirely clear but include:
There is no single test for Alzheimer's disease. A true diagnosis can be made only after a person dies and an autopsy is done on the brain.
However, Alzheimer's usually has a pattern of symptoms. A doctor will start by ruling out other possible causes. The doctor will ask questions about medical history and symptoms and do a physical exam, including a neurological exam.
The following tests may also be used:
In the early stages of dementia, brain scans may be normal. In later stages, an MRI may show a decrease in the size of certain brain areas. While the scans do not confirm the diagnosis of Alzheimer's, they rule out other causes of dementia such as stroke and tumor.
No one knows exactly how to prevent Alzheimer's disease, but eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly help.
The goals in treating Alzheimer's disease are to:
Studies show the following lifestyle changes may help improve behavior in people with Alzheimer's disease:
Several drugs are available to try to slow the progression of Alzheimer's and possibly improve mental function.
Memantine (Namenda) -- This drug works by regulating a chemical messenger called glutamate, which is involved in information storage and retrieval in the brain. Side effects can include headache, constipation, confusion, and dizziness. It is the only drug approved for treatment of moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s disease.
The following medications may also ease the symptoms related to Alzheimer’s:
People with Alzheimer's may need help with their diet. They often forget to eat and drink and can get dehydrated.
Follow these tips for a healthy diet:
Some supplements may interact with certain medications and may have negative side effects. Always tell you doctor about any herb or dietary supplement you are taking. These supplements may help with some symptoms of Alzheimer's, although further study is needed:
Herbs are generally a safe way to strengthen and tone the body's systems. As with any therapy, you should work with your health care provider to get your problem diagnosed before starting any treatment. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, you should make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day.
Small studies have shown that transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), a technique used in physical therapy and certain types of acupuncture, may improve memory and daily living skills in people with Alzheimer's. More studies are needed.
People with Alzheimer's disease become frustrated and anxious because they cannot communicate well with language. Using touch, or massage, as a form of nonverbal communication may help. In one study, people with Alzheimer's who received hand massages and were spoken to in a calming manner had lower pulse rates and didn’t engage in as much inappropriate behavior. Health care professionals think that massage may help not only because it is relaxing, but because it provides a form of social interaction.
Music therapy -- using music to calm and heal -- cannot slow or reverse dementia. But it may improve quality of life for both a person with Alzheimer's disease and their caregiver. Clinical reports suggest that music therapy may reduce wandering and restlessness and increase chemicals in the brain that promote sleep and ease anxiety. Mood also got better after listening to the music.
Support for the Caregiver
Studies suggest that caregivers who receive emotional support have better quality of life, which also benefits the people they care for.
Alzheimer's disease can lead to many complications, including:
Alzheimer's disease gets worse over time. However, people with the disease may live for many years. Those with a long-standing history of high blood pressure are more likely to get worse faster.
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