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Written by Michele Wheat
Alzheimer's disease, a progressive disorder affecting the brain, works slowly to damage a person's memory and eventually results in a person's lack of ability to process thoughts and handle even simple tasks. In most cases, symptoms begin to develop in people in their mid-60s, leading experts to estimate that more than 5 million people in the United States could be suffering from Alzheimer's. The disease is considered the sixth leading cause of death in the elderly population. These numbers are just one of the reasons that raising awareness about the disease and its effects is important. Purple wristbands are just one way that individuals can draw attention to the disease and encourage more research.
Alois Alzheimer is credited with making the discovery of the disease when he noticed abnormal changes in a patient's brain after her death. Her symptoms included memory issues, language problems, and behavior that was unpredictable. Clumps, now called amyloid plaques, were found in her brain along with bundles of fibers. Both are now know to be among the major features of Alzheimer's disease.
Research continues as scientists look to discover the onset of the disease and track its progression. Most agree that the damage to the brain occurs much earlier than the symptoms begin to appear. Despite showing no noticeable signs, the brain is already beginning the process of deterioration. The plaques and tangles within the brain cause neurons to lose their functioning capabilities.
While the process starts in the hippocampus, the area associated with creating memories, as the disease progresses, other areas of the brain are also affected. As the last stages of the disease occur, the brain volume has decreased considerably, shrinking its overall size and even changing its shape.
One of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease is trouble with memory. In some cases, there is minor memory loss that seems to be abnormal for a person's age. In fact, the memory problems may have only a minor effect on an individual's day-to-day life. The diagnosis of MCI, or mild cognitive impairment, means that a person is at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, some patients never progress to this stage, while others actually go back to their regular cognition.
Memory problems aren't the only symptom that shows up early. In some cases, a person will struggle with other aspects of cognition, like the ability to find a certain word or even issues with comprehension. Still others have struggles with reasoning when it comes to specific situations. Research continues to focus on early detection, especially in patients diagnosed with MCI.
As the disease progresses, the signs and symptoms continue to increase. Individuals may become lost and wander around or struggle to handle some of their daily tasks. Moderate Alzheimer's disease increases the issues with memory and communication, and in some cases, people start struggling to recognize friends and family members. Impulsive behavior is also common in this stage. As the disease becomes more severe, the brain continues to shrink and patients become completely dependent on others. In the end, patients are often confined to their beds.
There are still lots of questions left unanswered as to the causes of Alzheimer's. This is just one reason why things like wristbands are an important part of raising awareness. Research is an important part of learning more about the causes and options for preventing the progression of the disease.
When the disease happens to individuals at an early age, a genetic mutation could be the cause. However, in most cases, there are several variables that could affect a person's chances of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's. These variables include everything from environmental factors to a person's lifestyle choices. The best way for scientists to learn more is through brain imaging, allowing them to take a closer look at things like the abnormal amyloid and tau proteins in a patient. One of the biggest questions researchers are facing is why is the disease usually focuses on older adults. There is evidence of brain atrophy or shrinking as a person ages, and scientists want to understand how these changes relate to Alzheimer's disease.
Genetics is also an important part of Alzheimer's research. There is evidence that individuals with a certain gene are more likely to develop Alzheimer's. At the same time, the discovery of this gene in a person's DNA is not an absolute indication that they will suffer from Alzheimer's. There is a link between early onset Alzheimer's in patients between the ages of 30 and 60 and genetics. And in most cases, a person with Down syndrome will develop Alzheimer's disease.
There are several ways that physicians can diagnose Alzheimer's disease. A series of questions and tests is usually the first step. Patients and their family members are asked to describe any noticeable changes in memory as well as behavior. Memory and problem-solving tests help draw attention to any areas in which a person is beginning to struggle. At the same time, medical tests are done to help rule out any other medical conditions that could be creating similar symptoms. Finally, brain scans also help doctors to take a closer look at the structure of the brain and rule out other medical complications. At this time, the only way to confirm the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is to autopsy the brain tissue of a patient after their death.
As the disease progresses, some of these same tests may continue to be run in order to keep track of the changes a person experiences. Early diagnosis is important because there are things that patients and doctors can do in order to preserve some of a person's brain function. While the progression of the disease cannot be reversed or even stopped, it is possible to help a family plan for the future. Awareness efforts and campaigns using wristbands often center on encouraging people to talk to their doctors about any issues with memory or cognition they may be experiencing.
Because so much is still unknown about Alzheimer's disease, clinical trials are an important part of the research process. People with or without Alzheimer's can participate in these trials in order to learn more about how the brain changes as a person ages. The goal is to learn more about diagnosing and treating patients with the disease.
Because Alzheimer's is complex, at this time, there is no one treatment that will work for all patients. Instead, the goal is to focus on helping a person maintain their cognitive functions for as long as possible and manage the symptoms that center on behavior. There are currently several medications approved by the FDA that focus on regulating neurotransmitters in order to keep up with memory, communication, and overall thinking skills. In addition to medication, there are behavioral management options that can offer peace of mind for both patients and their loved ones.
It's no secret that family members and caregivers experience struggles in dealing with Alzheimer's patients. The cost of the disease is more than just financial: The emotional toll that it can take on a person is also high. From the care required to the tough decisions that need to be made, it is important that family members seek out support during this trying time. The most important step is learning more about the disease and the options for dealing with the symptoms and behaviors that commonly occur. A support network along with the ability to take a break from the situation can help a person manage the stress of caregiving.