Alzheimer’s Disease: What You Need to Know

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month. We’ve all heard of this disease, but many people don’t know the symptoms, causes or treatments.

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. The exact cause is not known, although research shows that certain changes in the brain lead to the disease.

You are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s if you:

  • Are older. Developing Alzheimer’s is not a part of normal aging.
  • Have a close relative, such as a brother, sister or parent with the disease.
  • Have certain genes linked to Alzheimer’s.

The following may also increase the risk:

  • Being female
  • Having heart and blood vessel problems due to high cholesterol
  • History of head trauma

There are two types of Alzheimer’s:

  • Early onset: Symptoms appear before age 60. This type is much less common than late onset. It tends to progress quickly. Early onset disease can run in families and some genes have been tied to the disease.
  • Late onset: This is the most common type. It occurs in people age 60 and older and may run in some families, though the role of genetics is less clear.

Symptoms

Alzheimer’s symptoms include difficulty with many areas of mental function, including:

  • Emotional behavior or personality
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Perception
  • Thinking and judgment (cognitive skills)

Alzheimer’s usually first appears as forgetfulness, but certainly not all forgetfulness is tied to Alzheimer’s.

Early symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty performing tasks that take some thought, but used to come easily, such as balancing a checkbook, playing complex games (bridge) and learning new information or routines
  • Getting lost on familiar routes
  • Language problems, such as trouble remembering names of familiar objects
  • Losing interest in things previously enjoyed and being in a flat mood
  • Misplacing items
  • Personality changes and loss of social skills

Exams and Tests

Skilled health care providers often can diagnose Alzheimer’s with the following steps:

  • Performing a complete physical exam, including a nervous system exam
  • Taking a detailed medical history and symptom history
  • Using mental function tests (mental status examination)

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is made when certain symptoms are present and by making sure other causes of dementia are not present.

Treatment

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s. The goals of treatment are:

  • Slow the progression of the disease (although this can be difficult)
  • Manage symptoms, such as behavior problems, confusion and sleep problems
  • Change the home environment to make daily activities easier
  • Support family members and other caregivers

Medicines are used to:

  • Slow the rate at which symptoms worsen, though the benefit of these drugs may be small
  • Control problems with behavior, such as loss of judgment or confusion

Prevention

Although there is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s, there are some measures that may help prevent or slow the onset of the disease:

  • Stay on a low-fat diet and eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Get plenty of exercise.
  • Stay mentally and socially active.
  • Wear a helmet during risky activities (like bike riding) to prevent brain injury.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider. For more information about any of St. Bernards senior services, including memory care, please visit our website.

Source: Alzheimer’s Disease on St. Bernards Health Library

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