Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease

Overview

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological degenerative disease. It results in a slow, irreversible death of brain cells, causing irreparable loss of memory and cognitive skills. Damage usually begins in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. The degeneration spreads to the rest of the brain causing shrinkage of the brain tissue. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease affects patients between the ages of 30 and 60 years. Late onset Alzheimer’s disease occurs in patients above 60. Alzheimer’s disease can progress into dementia.

Signs and symptoms

One of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. Patients may have difficulty remembering recent events or conversations. Patients may also find it difficult to think and reason, make decisions, plan and perform routine familiar tasks or they may behave inappropriately in social settings. Patients may also undergo sudden changes in personality or develop mental illnesses like depression.

Causes

The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unclear. At a surface level, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by an imbalance of brain proteins, which disrupts the function of the brain neurons. The neuron damage causes a loss of function, as critical chains of neurons are broken. Studies suggest that triggers could include a combination of lifestyle, environmental and genetic factors. The damage usually originates in the hippocampus and spreads to the rest of the brain tissue. Degeneration generally begins long before symptoms begin to show.

Risk factors

Family history is a strong risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Old age also increases a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Patients with certain pre-existing conditions, such as Down syndrome or Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) are also at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Other lifestyle factors that could raise the risk include insufficient sleep, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity.

Complications

Alzheimer’s disease leads to permanent loss of memory, language skills, judgement and cognitive abilities. As the disease progresses patients may also experience a loss of motor function, balance and bowel or bladder control. They may also develop bed sores, fractures, malnutrition, dehydration and dental issues.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is largely based on the ability of the patient or their family member to describe the patient’s symptoms and behaviours. The doctor will also perform a complete physical and neurological work up to rule out other possible conditions that could be causing the patient’s symptoms. This usually involves a series of lab tests, an MRI scan, a CT scan and a PET scan.

Treatment

Alzheimer’s disease is treated with medication. The treatment is intended to help with memory loss and cognitive changes. Other medications such as anti-depressants may also be prescribed to treat the behavioural changes. In addition to this, the patient needs to be provided with a safe and healthy living environment. They could tend to wander off and hence certain safety measures may need to be put in place. The house will also need to be accident-proofed.

Prevention

Alzheimer’s disease is not preventable.

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