Disease: Alzheimer's disease

Appointments & care

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Alzheimer's Caregiving

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Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions.

It's the most common cause of dementia — a group of brain disorders that results in the loss of intellectual and social skills. These changes are severe enough to interfere with day-to-day life.

In Alzheimer's disease, the brain cells themselves degenerate and die, causing a steady decline in memory and mental function.

Current Alzheimer's disease medications and management strategies may temporarily improve symptoms. This can sometimes help people with Alzheimer's disease maximize function and maintain independence.

But because there's no cure for Alzheimer's disease, it's important to seek supportive services and tap into your support network as early as possible.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

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At first, increasing forgetfulness or mild confusion may be the only symptoms of Alzheimer's disease that you notice. But over time, the disease robs you of more of your memory, especially recent memories. The rate at which symptoms worsen varies from person to person.

If you have Alzheimer's, you may be the first to notice that you're having unusual difficulty remembering things and organizing your thoughts. Or you may not recognize that anything is wrong, even when changes are noticeable to your family members, close friends or co-workers.

Brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease lead to growing trouble with:

Memory

Everyone has occasional memory lapses. It's normal to lose track of where you put your keys or forget the name of an acquaintance. But the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease persists and worsens, affecting your ability to function at work and at home. People with Alzheimer's may:

  • Repeat statements and questions over and over, not realizing that they've asked the question before
  • Forget conversations, appointments or events, and not remember them later
  • Routinely misplace possessions, often putting them in illogical locations
  • Eventually forget the names of family members and everyday objects

Disorientation and misinterpreting spatial relationships

People with Alzheimer's disease may lose their sense of what day it is, the season, where they are or even their current life circumstances. Alzheimer's may also disrupt your brain's ability to interpret what you see, making it difficult to understand your surroundings. Eventually, these problems may lead to getting lost in familiar places.

Speaking and writing

Those with Alzheimer's may have trouble finding the right words to identify objects, express thoughts or take part in conversations. Over time, the ability to read and write also declines.

Thinking and reasoning

Alzheimer's disease causes difficulty concentrating and thinking, especially about abstract concepts like numbers. It may be challenging to manage finances, balance checkbooks, and keep track of bills and pay them on time. These difficulties may progress to inability to recognize and deal with numbers.

Making judgments and decisions

Responding effectively to everyday problems, such as food burning on the stove or unexpected driving situations, becomes increasingly challenging.

Planning and performing familiar tasks

Once-routine activities that require sequential steps, such as planning and cooking a meal or playing a favorite game, become a struggle as the disease progresses. Eventually, people with advanced Alzheimer's may forget how to perform basic tasks such as dressing and bathing.

Changes in personality and behavior

Brain changes that occur in Alzheimer's disease can affect the way you act and how you feel. People with Alzheimer's may experience:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Distrust in others
  • Irritability and aggressiveness
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Wandering
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Delusions, such as believing something has been stolen

Many important skills are not lost until very late in the disease. These include the ability to read, dance and sing, enjoy old music, engage in crafts and hobbies, tell stories, and reminisce.

This is because information, skills and habits learned early in life are among the last abilities to be lost as the disease progresses. Capitalizing on these abilities can allow you to continue to have successes and maintain a high quality of life even when you are into the moderate phase of the disease.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

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Scientists believe that for most people, Alzheimer's disease results from a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors that affect the brain over time.

Less than 5 percent of the time, Alzheimer's is caused by specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease.

Although the causes of Alzheimer's are not yet fully understood, its effect on the brain is clear. Alzheimer's disease damages and kills brain cells. A brain affected by Alzheimer's disease has many fewer cells and many fewer connections among surviving cells than does a healthy brain.

As more and more brain cells die, Alzheimer's leads to significant brain shrinkage. When doctors examine Alzheimer's brain tissue under the microscope, they see two types of abnormalities that are considered hallmarks of the disease:

  • Plaques. These clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid may damage and destroy brain cells in several ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication. Although the ultimate cause of brain-cell death in Alzheimer's isn't known, the collection of beta-amyloid on the outside of brain cells is a prime suspect.
  • Tangles. Brain cells depend on an internal support and transport system to carry nutrients and other essential materials throughout their long extensions. This system requires the normal structure and functioning of a protein called tau.

    In Alzheimer's, threads of tau protein twist into abnormal tangles inside brain cells, leading to failure of the transport system. This failure is also strongly implicated in the decline and death of brain cells.

Tangles. Brain cells depend on an internal support and transport system to carry nutrients and other essential materials throughout their long extensions. This system requires the normal structure and functioning of a protein called tau.

In Alzheimer's, threads of tau protein twist into abnormal tangles inside brain cells, leading to failure of the transport system. This failure is also strongly implicated in the decline and death of brain cells.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Appointments & care

At Mayo Clinic, we take the time to listen, to find answers and to provide you the best care.

Alzheimer's Caregiving

Subscribe to our Alzheimer's Caregiving e-newsletter to stay up to date on Alzheimer's topics.

There's no specific test today that confirms you have Alzheimer's disease. Your doctor will make a judgment about whether Alzheimer's is the most likely cause of your symptoms based on the information you provide and results of various tests that can help clarify the diagnosis.

Doctors can nearly always determine whether you have dementia, and they can often identify whether your dementia is due to Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's disease can be diagnosed with complete accuracy only after death, when microscopic examination of the brain reveals the characteristic plaques and tangles.

To help distinguish Alzheimer's disease from other causes of memory loss, doctors now typically rely on the following types of tests.

Physical and neurological exam

Your doctor will perform a physical exam, and is likely to check your overall neurological health by testing your:

  • Reflexes
  • Muscle tone and strength
  • Ability to get up from a chair and walk across the room
  • Sense of sight and hearing
  • Coordination
  • Balance

Lab tests

Blood tests may help your doctor rule out other potential causes of memory loss and confusion, such as thyroid disorders or vitamin deficiencies.

Mental status testing

Your doctor may conduct a brief mental status test to assess your memory and other thinking skills. Short forms of mental status testing can be done in about 10 minutes.

Neuropsychological testing

Your doctor may recommend a more extensive assessment of your thinking and memory. Longer forms of neuropsychological testing, which can take several hours to complete, may provide additional details about your mental function compared with others' of a similar age and education level.

This type of testing may be especially helpful if your doctor thinks you may have a very early stage of Alzheimer's disease or another dementia. These tests may also help identify patterns of change associated with different types of dementia and can help doctors estimate your ability to safely manage important activities, such as financial and medical decision-making.

Brain imaging

Images of the brain are now used chiefly to pinpoint visible abnormalities related to conditions other than Alzheimer's disease — such as strokes, trauma or tumors — that may cause cognitive change. New imaging applications — currently used primarily in major medical centers or in clinical trials — may enable doctors to detect specific brain changes caused by Alzheimer's.

Brain-imaging technologies include:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to produce detailed images of your brain. You lie on a narrow table that slides into a tube-shaped MRI machine, which makes loud banging noises while it produces images. MRIs are painless, but some people feel claustrophobic inside the machine and are disturbed by the noise.

    MRIs are used to rule out other conditions that may account for or be adding to cognitive symptoms. In addition, they may be used to assess whether shrinkage in brain regions implicated in Alzheimer's disease has occurred.

  • Computerized tomography (CT). For a CT scan, you'll lie on a narrow table that slides into a small chamber. X-rays pass through your body from various angles, and a computer uses this information to create cross-sectional images (slices) of your brain. It's currently used chiefly to rule out tumors, strokes and head injuries.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET). During a PET scan, you'll be injected in a vein with a low-level radioactive tracer. You'll lie on a table while an overhead scanner tracks the tracer's flow through your brain.

    The tracer may be a special form of glucose (sugar) that shows overall activity in various brain regions. This can show which parts of your brain aren't functioning well. New PET techniques may be able to detect your brain level of plaques and tangles, the two hallmark abnormalities linked to Alzheimer's.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to produce detailed images of your brain. You lie on a narrow table that slides into a tube-shaped MRI machine, which makes loud banging noises while it produces images. MRIs are painless, but some people feel claustrophobic inside the machine and are disturbed by the noise.

MRIs are used to rule out other conditions that may account for or be adding to cognitive symptoms. In addition, they may be used to assess whether shrinkage in brain regions implicated in Alzheimer's disease has occurred.

Positron emission tomography (PET). During a PET scan, you'll be injected in a vein with a low-level radioactive tracer. You'll lie on a table while an overhead scanner tracks the tracer's flow through your brain.

The tracer may be a special form of glucose (sugar) that shows overall activity in various brain regions. This can show which parts of your brain aren't functioning well. New PET techniques may be able to detect your brain level of plaques and tangles, the two hallmark abnormalities linked to Alzheimer's.

Future diagnostic tests

Researchers are working with doctors to develop new diagnostic tools to help definitively diagnose Alzheimer's. Another important goal is to detect the disease before it causes the symptoms targeted by current diagnostic techniques — at the stage when Alzheimer's may be most treatable as new drugs are discovered. This stage is called preclinical Alzheimer's disease.

New tools under investigation include:

  • Additional approaches to brain imaging
  • More-sensitive tests of mental abilities
  • Measurement of key proteins or protein patterns in blood or spinal fluid (biomarkers)

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

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Memory and language loss, impaired judgment, and other cognitive changes caused by Alzheimer's can complicate treatment for other health conditions. A person with Alzheimer's disease may not be able to:

  • Communicate that he or she is experiencing pain — for example, from a dental problem
  • Report symptoms of another illness
  • Follow a prescribed treatment plan
  • Notice or describe medication side effects

As Alzheimer's disease progresses to its last stages, brain changes begin to affect physical functions, such as swallowing, balance, and bowel and bladder control. These effects can increase vulnerability to additional health problems such as:

  • Pneumonia and other infections. Difficulty swallowing may cause people with Alzheimer's to inhale (aspirate) food or liquid into their airways and lungs, which can lead to pneumonia.

    Inability to control emptying of the bladder (urinary incontinence) may require placement of a tube to drain and collect urine (urinary catheter). Having a catheter increases your risk of urinary tract infections, which can lead to more-serious, life-threatening infections.

  • Injuries from falls. People with Alzheimer's become increasingly vulnerable to falling. Falls can lead to fractures. In addition, falls are a common cause of serious head injuries.

Pneumonia and other infections. Difficulty swallowing may cause people with Alzheimer's to inhale (aspirate) food or liquid into their airways and lungs, which can lead to pneumonia.

Inability to control emptying of the bladder (urinary incontinence) may require placement of a tube to drain and collect urine (urinary catheter). Having a catheter increases your risk of urinary tract infections, which can lead to more-serious, life-threatening infections.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

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Right now, there's no proven way to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Research into prevention strategies is ongoing. The strongest evidence so far suggests that you may be able to lower your risk of Alzheimer's disease by reducing your risk of heart disease.

Many of the same factors that increase your risk of heart disease can also increase your risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Important factors that may be involved include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, excess weight and diabetes.

New programs targeted to people at high risk of dementia are being developed. These multicomponent programs encourage physical activity, cognitive stimulation, social engagement and a healthy diet.

They also teach memory compensation strategies that help optimize daily function even if brain changes progress. Keeping active — physically, mentally and socially — may make your life more enjoyable and may also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

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Various herbal mixtures, vitamins and other supplements are widely promoted as preparations that may support cognitive health or prevent or delay Alzheimer's. Currently, there's no strong evidence that any of these therapies slow the progression of cognitive decline.

Some of the treatments that have been studied recently include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids. The NIH panel concluded there is somewhat stronger data — but not definitive evidence — that omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil may help prevent cognitive decline.
  • Curcumin. This herb comes from turmeric and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that might affect chemical processes in the brain. So far, clinical trials have found no benefit for treating Alzheimer's disease.
  • Ginkgo. Ginkgo is a plant extract containing several substances believed to be of possible benefit in Alzheimer's. But a large study funded by the NIH found no effect in preventing or delaying Alzheimer's disease.

Supplements promoted for cognitive health can interact with medications you're taking for Alzheimer's disease or other health conditions. Work closely with your health care team to create a treatment plan that's right for you. Make sure you understand the risks and benefits of everything it includes.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

Subscribe to our Alzheimer's Caregiving e-newsletter to stay up to date on Alzheimer's topics.

Study results have been mixed about whether diet, exercise or other healthy lifestyle choices can prevent or reverse cognitive decline. But these healthy choices promote good overall health and may play a role in maintaining cognitive health, so there's no harm in including these strategies in your general wellness plan:

  • Regular exercise has known benefits for heart health and may also help prevent cognitive decline. Exercise may also help improve mood.
  • A diet low in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables is another heart-healthy choice that also may help protect cognitive health.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are good for the heart. Most research showing a possible benefit for cognitive health uses fish consumption as a yardstick for the amount of omega-3 fatty acids eaten.
  • Social engagement and intellectual stimulation may make life more satisfying and help preserve mental function.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Alzheimer's Caregiving

Subscribe to our Alzheimer's Caregiving e-newsletter to stay up to date on Alzheimer's topics.

People with Alzheimer's disease experience a mixture of emotions — confusion, frustration, anger, fear, uncertainty, grief and depression.

If you're caring for someone with Alzheimer's, you can help them cope with the disease by being there to listen, reassuring the person that life can still be enjoyed, providing support, and doing your best to help the person retain dignity and self-respect.

A calm and stable home environment can help reduce behavior problems. New situations, noise, large groups of people, being rushed or pressed to remember, or being asked to do complicated tasks can cause anxiety. As a person with Alzheimer's becomes upset, the ability to think clearly declines even more.

Caring for the caregiver

Caring for a person with Alzheimer's disease is physically and emotionally demanding. Feelings of anger and guilt, stress and discouragement, worry and grief, and social isolation are common.

Caregiving can even take a toll on the caregiver's physical health. But paying attention to your own needs and well-being is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for the person with Alzheimer's.

If you're a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's, you can help yourself by:

  • Learning as much about the disease as you can
  • Asking questions of doctors, social workers and others involved in the care of your loved one
  • Calling on friends or other family members for help when you need it
  • Taking a break every day
  • Spending time with your friends
  • Taking care of your health by seeing your own doctors on schedule, eating healthy meals and getting exercise
  • Joining a support group
  • Making use of a local adult day center, if possible

Many people with Alzheimer's and their families benefit from counseling or local support services. Contact your local Alzheimer's Association affiliate to connect with support groups, doctors, resources and referrals, home care agencies, residential care facilities, a telephone help line, and educational seminars.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

Age

Alzheimer's Caregiving

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Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is not a part of normal aging, but your risk increases greatly after you reach age 65. Nearly half of those older than age 85 have Alzheimer's.

People with rare genetic changes that virtually guarantee they'll develop Alzheimer's begin experiencing symptoms as early as their 30s.

Family history and genetics

Your risk of developing Alzheimer's appears to be somewhat higher if a first-degree relative — your parent or sibling — has the disease. Scientists have identified rare changes (mutations) in three genes that virtually guarantee a person who inherits them will develop Alzheimer's. But these mutations account for less than 5 percent of Alzheimer's disease.

Most genetic mechanisms of Alzheimer's among families remain largely unexplained. The strongest risk gene researchers have found so far is apolipoprotein e4 (APOE e4). Other risk genes have been identified but not conclusively confirmed.

Sex

Women may be more likely than are men to develop Alzheimer's disease, in part because they live longer.

Mild cognitive impairment

People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) have memory problems or other symptoms of cognitive decline that are worse than might be expected for their age, but not severe enough to be diagnosed as dementia.

Those with MCI have an increased risk — but not a certainty — of later developing dementia. Taking action to develop a healthy lifestyle and strategies to compensate for memory loss at this stage may help delay or prevent the progression to dementia.

Past head trauma

People who've had a severe head trauma or repeated head trauma appear to have a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Lifestyle and heart health

There's no lifestyle factor that's been conclusively shown to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease.

However, some evidence suggests that the same factors that put you at risk of heart disease also may increase the chance that you'll develop Alzheimer's. Examples include:

  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Elevated homocysteine levels
  • Poorly controlled diabetes
  • A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables

These risk factors are also linked to vascular dementia, a type of dementia caused by damaged blood vessels in the brain. Working with your health care team on a plan to control these factors will help protect your heart — and may also help reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

Lifelong learning and social engagement

Studies have found an association between lifelong involvement in mentally and socially stimulating activities and reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Factors that may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's include:

  • Higher levels of formal education
  • A stimulating job
  • Mentally challenging leisure activities, such as reading, playing games or playing a musical instrument
  • Frequent social interactions

Scientists can't yet explain this link. One theory is that using your brain develops more cell-to-cell connections, which protects your brain against the impact of Alzheimer-related changes.

Source: http://www.mayoclinic.com

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