Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a progressive and irreversible brain disorder that primarily affects people over 65.
About 50 million people around the world live with dementia, according to the Bright Focus Foundation, a research organization dedicated to ending Alzheimer’s disease. And the number of people with dementia could triple by the year 2050 since there is no cure for most forms of dementia and conditions that cause them.
Alzheimer’s affects roughly 10% of Americans over 65, or about 5.6 million people, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The risk of getting Alzheimer’s increases substantially with age, with one in three Americans over age 85 living with the disease. Alzheimer’s is also the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only one of the top ten causes that cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is one of many types of dementia, all of which affect language, memory and decision-making. Because Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, it is also the one most people think about when they hear the term dementia. The causes and experiences of dementia differ by type, however. Alzheimer’s underlying pathology is cellular death in the brain.
What Are Alzheimer’s Symptoms?
Alzheimer’s is a memory impairment, but its symptoms affect much more than memory. Below are 10 common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease:
- Disruptive memory loss. Most people lose some memory as they age, but people with Alzheimer’s experience regular memory loss that interferes with daily functioning.
- Trouble with everyday tasks. Driving, cooking meals, paying bills or doing laundry could all become challenging for a person with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Challenges solving problems. Having trouble making plans, solving problems or creating a grocery list could be a sign of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
- Unsure of time or location. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease become disoriented and are unsure of the time or where they are. As the disease progresses, they may believe they are living in another place or time altogether. For instance, they might think they are living in a childhood home with their parents and siblings when they are, in reality, in their 70’s living in a supportive living community.
- Vision problems. Some people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s show signs of visual impairment. While many people develop vision problems with age, people with Alzheimer’s usually show specific challenges with colors, contrast or depth.
- Communication difficulties. Groping for the occasional word or sometimes losing your train of thought is normal. Frequent repetition or incorrectly naming objects is not. Losing written or spoken vocabulary is often a sign of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.
- Losing things or putting them in odd places. Putting the keys in the refrigerator, the ice cream in the closet or the household cleaner in the dryer could signal Alzheimer’s.
- Social withdrawal. Many people opt for a refreshing break from an active social life every now and then, but withdrawing from cherished hobbies or social activities may indicate something deeper.
- Personality changes. People with Alzheimer’s may seem different from their usual selves. They may appear more fearful, aggressive or depressed. People with dementia often experience greatly exaggerated fears or other negative emotions.
- Finding simple things confusing. Many older adults get confused from time to time, but when someone persistently struggles with tasks that have never been a problem before, it may be time to see a doctor about an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
What Are the Stages of Alzheimer’s?
Once a doctor diagnoses Alzheimer’s disease, people often wonder what will happen to themselves, their relative or friend with the disease. There is no simple answer. Alzheimer’s progresses at different rates in different people, although there are several recognizable stages. The Global Deterioration Scale for Assessment of Primary Degenerative Dementia identifies seven distinct stages of Alzheimer’s within four categories.
Category 1 – No Dementia
- Stage 1 – In this stage, there are no signs or symptoms of dementia, such as confusion, disorientation or memory loss.
- Stage 2 – This stage is called “very mild cognitive impairment” and includes the levels of forgetfulness normally associated with aging.
- Stage 3 – During Stage 3, known as “mild cognitive impairment,” people may notice more pronounced forgetfulness, decreased performance in activities and trouble focusing.
Category 2 – Early Stage Dementia
- Stage 4 – At this stage, people with Alzheimer’s show signs such as difficulty concentrating or remembering recent events. People with stage four Alzheimer’s may require more scheduling and support from their relatives and friends. Loss of interest in their lives and increasing irritability or depression can characterize this stage, which usually lasts about two years.
Category 3 – Mid-Stage Dementia
- Stage 5 – People in the middle stages of dementia have easily identifiable symptoms and typically need extensive help managing their everyday lives.
- Stage 6 – In stage six, people begin to forget the names of close family and friends and to lose nearly all their short-term memory.
Category 4 – Late Stage Dementia
- Stage 7 – At the final stage of dementia, people experience severe cognitive decline. Full-time support is often necessary
While these stages are common in Alzheimer’s disease, they’re not set in stone. Some individuals stay in one stage longer than others and some skip stages entirely.
What Are the Causes and Risk Factors of Alzheimer’s?
No one knows for sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease. Generally, scientists believe that genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors working together over time result in Alzheimer’s. Genetics alone account for less than one percent of Alzheimer’s diagnoses and nearly all of them occur prior to age 65, so if your parent or grandparent had the disease, it doesn’t mean you are at a significantly greater risk.
Lifestyle factors affecting dementia include diet and exercise. Eating an unhealthy diet and failing to exercise regularly can cause diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which are often seen in patients with Alzheimer’s. Smoking, a history of heavy alcohol use and an intellectually disengaged lifestyle can all also contribute to Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, many people who maintain excellent physical and mental health still get Alzheimer’s.
Of all the contributing factors, aging poses the greatest risk. Nearly everyone with Alzheimer’s is over 65 and people who live to be older than 85 have a very high chance of getting the disease. Having a close relative, such as a parent, with Alzheimer’s can increase the risk of acquiring the disease as well, but not by much. Slightly more women than men get Alzheimer’s, which may be due to the fact that women generally live longer than men or it could relate to hormonal changes in older adults that affect women more than men.
People with Down’s Syndrome and people with other forms of dementia are also at an extremely high risk of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s Diagnosis, Treatment, Care
Getting a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s early in the disease’s progression can be tremendously helpful to the individual as well as to their family and friends. Alzheimer’s typically gets diagnosed by a geriatrician or a neurologist.
Once diagnosed, a person can begin Alzheimer’s treatment. While the disease has no cure, medication can help control the symptoms. It’s also important to exercise, eat healthy foods, socialize regularly, do mentally stimulating activities and engage in regular meditation or quiet prayer. These activities can help stave off the later stages of the disease even as they help improve the lives of everyone involved.
Getting an early diagnosis also gives people with Alzheimer’s more control. They can make care plans for themselves, expressing their opinions and ensuring that financial and estate matters are settled to their satisfaction.
While an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can cause anxiety, fear and sadness, it is not the end of the conversation. Many people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias live happy, healthy and productive lives supported by family and friends over many years. The key is maintaining physical, social, emotional and spiritual health with support from a team of care partners and professionals.
Alzheimer’s, Caregivers and Memory Care Communities
While supporting someone with Alzheimer’s is one of the most rewarding experiences someone can have, it may also come with significant challenges. Watching a parent, sibling or friend lose their memory and strength is difficult. Moreover, many caregivers say their own health has declined or they have had to give up profitable careers in order to maintain their caregiving duties. The Alzheimer’s Association believes that 16.2 million unpaid caregivers put in 18.5 billion hours of care for people with Alzheimer’s each year.
Self-care is essential for caregivers, as is finding help when needed. Memory care is often the best option. For many individuals with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, memory care services and communities are one of the most powerful resources available. A memory care community with a trained staff available 24/7 can relieve caregivers, providing the support individuals need while empowering relatives and friends to be a regular, positive influence.
Many individuals and their families opt for memory care in the early stages of their disease simply for the comfort and support it provides. Even more choose memory care in the mid to late stages, ensuring that everyone – caregivers included – are healthy and happy throughout the disease’s progression.
Alzheimer’s Care is a Personal Decision
Ultimately, the way an individual and their family deals with Alzheimer’s is based on their personal situation. What type of support, medication and involvement are they most comfortable with?
Whatever a family chooses, the end result is often more positive than expected. Individuals with Alzheimer’s live strong, full lives, interacting with relatives and friends and enjoying their hobbies in the environment they choose.