What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

According to NIH, Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with the disease—those with the late-onset type—symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s occurs between a person’s 30s and mid-60s and is very rare. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults.

The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles).

These plaques and tangles in the brain are still considered some of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. Another feature is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Neurons transmit messages between different parts of the brain, and from the brain to muscles and organs in the body. Many other complex brain changes are thought to play a role in Alzheimer’s, too.

This damage initially appears to take place in the hippocampus, the part of the brain essential in forming memories. As neurons die, additional parts of the brain are affected. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

Alzheimer’s Disease Signs & Symptoms

As Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, symptoms are initially subtle and mild, before gradually worsening over a period of several years. The onset, progression severity and speed, as well as time to death varies significantly between affected individuals, depending on the exact cause and mechanism involved.

4523 alzheimer symptoms
Alzheimer disease. Photo: Naeblys/Shutterstock

According to News Medical, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be broken down into three stages:

1. Early-Stage Symptoms:

  • Subtle memory loss of the most recent events e.g. forgetting a recent conversation or event, as well as repetitive questioning and the inability to select certain words in conversations
  • Subtle mood changes or behavioural changes which are not normal for the individual – these can manifest as increased anxiety and confusion
  • Other cognitive symptoms may include increased difficulty in making decisions and becoming more hesitant in certain things

It is important to note that misplacing items or forgetting things occasionally is a normal part of ageing – however, when this becomes routine, is often a sign of dementia.

2. Middle-Stage Symptoms:

  • Worsening of memory loss which progresses to forgetting names of people close to them, as well as forgetting the faces of loved ones
  • Mood changes become more profound with increased anxiousness, frustration and signs of repetitive or impulsive behaviours
  • Depressive symptoms alongside anxiety – including loss of motivation
  • In some cases, there may be signs of delusions and hallucinations
  • Insomnia and disturbed sleep patterns are common
  • The emergence of motor difficulties including aphasia (speech problems)

At this stage, activities of daily living become impaired and patients usually require some level of care and assistance, especially as the disease progresses.

3. Late-Stage Symptoms:

  • All of the above symptoms become more severe, behavioural, mood, motor and cognitive – with increased distress for both the patient and caregiver
  • Violence towards caregivers is not uncommon and patients can become suspicious of those around them, including loved ones
  • Due to feeding issues, severe weight loss can occur in some patients
  • As motor problems worsen, there may be severely impaired speech, difficulty in positioning oneself, urinary and bowel incontinence

At this stage, activities of daily living become severely impaired and patients usually require full-time care and assistance. Patients become more withdrawn from life and symptoms decline eventually leading to death.

In a lot of cases, the progression of disease course can be enhanced by other factors independent of Alzheimer’s pathology. These include infections, strokes, head injuries and delirium. Sometimes, certain medications can also worsen the symptoms of dementia. In general, death occurs anywhere from 3-9 years after the first symptoms appear.

There is much overlap between symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It is also common for patients with Alzheimer’s over the age of 65 to also experience symptoms and pathology of vascular dementia, which often initially manifests with more marked motor impairment.

Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care

When Alzheimer’s is highly advanced, informal care by family caregivers is usually not sufficient. Alzheimer’s patients will usually eventually require dedicated memory care at an assisted living facility or nursing home with a memory care unit. These special care units aim to make Alzheimer’s sufferers as comfortable and content as possible while also keeping the residents safe from hazard such as wandering.

Memory care units for Alzheimer’s patients are often purpose-built to be warm and inviting. They frequently feature circular hallways so that residents can’t get lost. The staff is specially trained to effectively interact and care for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease. Even activities, dining programs, and enrichment opportunities are tailor made to be appropriate for people with Alzheimer’s or similar kinds of dementia.

Senior care referral services such as A Place for Mom can help families of Alzheimer’s patients identify care options that may be a good match for their family.

A Cure for Alzheimer’s

The Obama administration has set an ambitious goal of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s by 2030, and dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to the task. Because the cost of Alzheimer’s is already so high, money spent on research is minuscule compared to the savings that would be realized if new and more effective treatments for Alzheimer’s are discovered.

According to Alzheimer.net, researchers working for universities, private companies, and governments across the world are also working at a frenetic pace to make Alzheimer’s a disease of the past. They’re investigating new drugs as well as reexamining old ones. For instance, researchers are now examining whether a long-known molecule found in the common plant Jimson weed may have value as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. Researchers are also working to find better ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. It’s quite likely that if new treatments are to work, patients will need to be diagnosed as early as possible.

what is hepatitis c some facts common symptoms and possible treatment What is Hepatitis C: some facts, common symptoms and possible treatment!

Hepatitis C is ranked 13th in the top 16 common diseases in the U.S. The information below will help you answer the questions about the ...

what is pneumonia causes symptoms and best treatment What is Pneumonia: Causes, symptoms and best treatment

Pneumonia is an infection of one or both of the lungs caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi that may cause serious infection. Therefore, acknowleding the ...

what is heart disease symptoms treatments and the talking numbers What is Heart disease: Symptoms, treatments and the talking numbers

Heart disease is a major cause of death in the U.S. The information below will help you answer the questions about the definition, symptoms, treatment ...