Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder that causes brain cells to degenerate and die. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, which is a continuous decline in thinking, behavioral and social skills that disrupts a person’s ability to function independently.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
Like all types of dementia, Alzheimer’s is caused by brain cell death. It is a neuro-degenerative disease, which means there is progressive brain cell death that occurs over time. In a person with Alzheimer’s, the brain tissue has fewer and fewer nerve cells and connections.
Autopsies have shown that the nerve tissue in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s has deposits, known as plaques and tangles, that develop around the tissue. Plaques are found between dying brain cells and are composed of a protein known as beta-amyloid. The tangles occur within the nerve cells, and they are made from another protein, called tau. Researchers do not fully understand why plaques and tangles occur. Several different factors are believed to be involved.
What are the symptoms?
Early symptoms are typically memory loss, difficulty problem solving, inability to plan ahead, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion about time and places, and inability to maintain conversation, among other symptoms. These symptoms typically appear first, as brain damage most often starts in the area of the brain that controls memory. As the disease progresses, the loss of neurons is erratic and impacts other areas of the brain.
Age: Although age does not cause Alzheimer’s, as people age, their risk for Alzheimer’s increases. For most, the risk for Alzheimer’s occurs after age 65. After age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly one-third.
Family history: Those that have a parent or sibling that has Alzheimer’s is more likely to develop the disease themselves. If more than one close family members has the disease, the risk increases. When diseases tend to run in families, either heredity (genetics), environmental factors, or both, may play a role.
Genetics: Scientists know genes are involved in Alzheimer’s. It is estimated that less than 1 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are caused by deterministic genes (genes that cause a disease, rather than increase the risk of developing a disease).
Other risk factors
Head injury: Over the past few years, you may have heard more information coming out about studies researching the effects of head injuries in athletes and ties to long-term brain damage and deterioration. We know there is a link between head injury and future risk of dementia. It is vital that the brain is protected by buckling up seat belts, wearing a helmet when participating in sports, and checking your home for any areas that could cause a trip or fall, leading to a head injury.
Heart-head connection: Here’s yet another reason to focus on heart health. There is strong evidence that brain health is impacted by heart health. This connection makes sense, because the brain is nourished by one of the body’s richest networks of blood vessels, and the heart is responsible for pumping blood through these blood vessels to the brain. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia is increased by conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, including heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, stroke, and diabetes.
Gender: There appears to be little difference in risk between men and women, but, overall, there are more women with the disease because they generally live longer than men. Heart disease, which has been found to be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, is also the leading cause of death among women, making heart health for women a particularly important factor.
Mild cognitive impairment: Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a decline in memory or other thinking skills that is greater than what would be expected for a person’s age, but the decline doesn’t prevent a person from functioning in social or work environments. People who have MCI have a significant risk of developing dementia. When the primary MCI deficit is memory, the condition is more likely to progress to dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. A diagnosis of MCI enables the person to focus on healthy lifestyle changes, develop strategies to compensate for memory loss and schedule regular doctor appointments to monitor symptoms.
Before you assume it’s your brain and not other issues like stress or metabolic changes, talk to your healthcare provider. Lab testing and imaging are used to rule out other causes for symptoms linked to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Neurological exams are administered to assess brain function related to physical coordination and behavior- they often observe reflexes, muscle tone and strength, coordination, and balance. Memory test and thinking skills tests are often administered in an effort to determine the state of the individual’s brain health.
Although there’s no cure it is important to share all issues with a medical provider so that progress can be tracked and symptoms managed. In many cases, medications can slow the deterioration of the brain and manage concerns
In conjunction with medications, another important factor in managing the disease is in providing a safe and supportive environment. This includes maintaining a home routine so that frequently used items are always in the same spot and systems are in place to prevent safety concerns like fires or flooding. Appointments or other routine events during the day, like eating and sleeping, should be kept at the same time. Bills can be set up with auto pay. Speak to a provider for more help in how to best provide support.
Does prevention exist?
Although it was previously believed that brain health in the form of cognitive stimulation like puzzles, and other so-called “brain games“, were one way to prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, newer research shows that such activities don’t appear to prevent the onset of such diseases.
Still, one benefit of participating in games, puzzles, and other mentally stimulating activities is the opportunity it provides you and others to pick up on early signs of change in brain health. If somebody that is typically quick at a word game begins to regularly struggle to participate or follow the activity, that could be an initial indicator of a larger issue.
By identify and controlling your personal risk factors and leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and preserve your cognitive abilities. Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. Some, like your age and genetics, are outside your control. However, changes that are within your control like maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, healthy diet), can ultimately impact your risk levels for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Experts now believe that the risk of Alzheimer’s is not limited to old age, but in fact can start in the brain long before symptoms are detected, often in middle age. That means it’s never too early to start taking care of your brain health. The more you strengthen and improve your daily life, the longer-and stronger-your brain will stay working and the more likely you’ll be able to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another dementia.