Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, with symptoms including memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving, and language. It is a progressive disease, which means its symptoms become gradually more severe over time. Alzheimer’s is marked by the way it damages and kills brain cells. Scientists have found protein structures called plaques and tangles that build up in brains affected by Alzheimer’s. These structures lead to the loss of connections between nerve cells, and eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue. Although the causes of Alzheimer’s are not completely understood, scientists believe this disease is caused by a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
Although the greatest known risk factor of Alzheimer’s disease is age, it is not just a disease of the elderly – as many as 5% of people with this disease have early onset Alzheimer’s, which can occur as early as one’s 40s. Other risk factors include family history, gender (there are about twice as many women as men over 65 with Alzheimer’s), and unhealthy lifestyle factors (e.g., lack of exercise, obesity, poor diet, smoking/exposure to secondhand smoke, and high blood pressure and cholesterol).
In the early stages of Alzheimer's, a person may still be able to function independently despite experiencing some cognitive difficulties. While memory may not be affected first, the person may struggle to find the right words or remember correct names. They may also have vision issues, impaired reasoning or judgment, trouble planning or organizing, and may misplace objects. These difficulties are not usually severe and are often common effects of old age, but they may be bad enough in some individuals that family and friends start to notice. As the disease progresses, the person will have greater memory loss, especially with important information such as their address or telephone number, and may occasionally wander or become lost. They may also experience changes in sleep patterns, confusion about their location or the time of day, and feeling moody or withdrawn. People are typically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when these symptoms become apparent, and some may require daily care. As the disease becomes more severe, the person will lose the ability to respond to their environment, carry on a conversation, and eventually control their movement. The person suffers even greater memory loss, including forgetting faces of friends and family, and requires constant care in later stages of Alzheimer’s. They become vulnerable to infections, and eventually their body completely shuts down. The progression of Alzheimer’s disease takes a severe emotional toll on families, and for some families without adequate means, the financial toll can be devastating. Caregivers also suffer from Alzheimer’s: over half of Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high, and almost half of all caregivers suffer from depression.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association:
· More than 5 million Americans are living with this disease
· Every 66 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s
· In 2015, over 15 million caregivers provided about 18 billion hours of unpaid care
· In 2016, it was estimated that Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost the nation $236 billion
· 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia
· Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than breast and prostate cancer combined
· Unfortunately, there is currently no known cure.
For more information, please visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website.
Keep up with our #FactFriday posts on social media. Every Friday, we use numbers to show Alzheimer's impact.