Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia among older adults. Often used as a broad term for memory loss, this disease is characterized by loss of general cognitive function that interferes with daily life. More than five million Americans of all ages live with this disease every day, though only about 200,000 of them are younger than 65. It’s the sixth leading cause of the death in the United States: One in three seniors dies with either Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. In 2013, the United States spent an estimated $203 billion on this disease, and by 2050, it is expected to cost the nation $1.2 trillion annually.
Risk Factors and Causes
The most common risk factors include: advanced age, family history, environmental history, and heredity. Though Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging, being 65 or older does seem to significantly increase the risk. In fact, a person’s likelihood of developing the disease doubles every five years after age 65; after age 85, a person’s risk reaches nearly 50%. Despite these consistent numbers, it is still a mystery as to why the risk increases with age.
Genetics also play a significant role, as certain genes increase the risk but do not guarantee onset. If you have a parent, sibling, or child with Alzheimer’s, you are more likely to develop the condition and the risk increases the more family members that suffer from it. Either hereditary or environmental factors, or both, could be to blame. Other genes, known as deterministic genes, have been identified that can directly cause the disease. Alzheimer’s has three: amyloid precursor protein (APP), presenilin-1 (PS-1) and presenilin-2 (PS-2). No specific causes are known.
Symptoms vary, but are progressive, and tend to worsen over time. Not every person follows the same pattern of symptoms at the same time. Regardless, Alzheimer’s typically has seven stages:
- Stage 1: No impairment; this is normal function.
- Stage 2: Very mild decline; memory lapses but no symptoms of dementia detected by medical examination
- Stage 3: Mild decline; early stages may be diagnosed in some, but not all people show warning signs.
- Stage 4: Moderate decline; this is mild or early stage Alzheimer’s.
- Stage 5: Moderately severe decline; at this stage, people may not be able to remember their address, phone number, etc.
- Stage 6: Severe decline; may not be able to remember people, may need help with dressing, etc.
- Stage 7: Very severe decline; loss of ability to respond to environment, carry on conversation, etc.
Warning signs include: memory loss that disrupts daily life, challenges in problem solving and planning, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion with place or time, issues understanding spatial relationships and visual imagery, new problems with words in writing and speaking, misplacing things and issues with retracing steps, decreased judgement, withdrawal from work or social activities, and mood and personality changes. There are a number of options available that can help caregivers accommodate problems with communication and completing basic tasks.
Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed with a complete medical assessment, as no single test can determine whether or not a person is affected. After a thorough medical history is taken, mental status testing, physical and neurological exams, blood tests and brain imaging will be taken to rule out other causes of symptoms. Simply having trouble with your memory does not mean you have Alzheimer’s. Therefore, it will take comprehensive testing and observations over time for a clear diagnosis.
The average life expectancy for someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s is estimated at eight to ten years after the onset of symptoms. People have been known to live up to 20 years after the first display of signs. The length of time someone lives will vary based on the other medical problems he or she suffers from. Those with multiple medical conditions tend to struggle more than those with no other conditions.
There is no way to slow or halt the progression of the disease but there are options. There are prescription medications available to help treat the condition, depending medical history and individual needs. As the condition worsens, it is common to eventually need round-the-clock care to ensure the patient’s safety. In more severe cases, in-patient living at a memory care facility may be required. There are also number of innovative therapies that use creative approaches to treat and delay symptoms.
Take any and all medications as prescribed by a medical doctor. These treatments are designed to slow the progression of symptoms and improve quality of life. Staying active as long as possible and relying on the help of trusted caregivers can help improve quality of life. Some recommend exercising the brain using games and puzzles. As more clinical research is done, scientists hope to be able to fine-tune treatments and go beyond treating the symptoms, and treat the underlying causes of the condition.
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About the Author: Victoria K. Stickley is a copywriter, editor, and senior content manager based in the Dallas area. Her graduate education in counseling and research has helped immensely in her writing as well as the care she provides for her grandparents. She currently provides support and resources to senior care websites as she learns and experiences senior care first-hand.