Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month
By: Megan K. Fischer with Peter J. Rice
What is Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible progressive neurodegenerative disease. It is characterized by destruction of memory and thinking skills leading to a loss in ability to carry out even the simplest tasks. Typically, Alzheimer’s affects older people with symptoms appearing around the age of 60, however it can affect patients earlier in life, being referred in that scenario as early-onset Alzheimer’s. Additionally, Alzheimer’s has a genetic component. Certain genes that a person has can increase risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Having one of these genes does not guarantee a you will develop Alzheimer’s disease and not having these genes does not mean you cannot still get the disease.
Approximately 60-80% of all dementia cases are due to Alzheimer’s. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States and typically patients will only live 8-20 years after their diagnosis. A main feature of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence of plaques and tangles in the brain. These plaques are the abnormal accumulation of proteins that form in spaces between the nerve cells of the brain. Tangles are abnormal proteins that form threads which become tangled inside brain cells. Another feature is loss of connections in between neurons in the brain. A neuron is a cell that transmits messages to different areas of the brain. The combination of these features inhibits the proper functioning of the cells in the brain causing impairment. When brain cells are unable to work properly together, it causes the messaging system in the brain to collapse. Scientists do not understand the exact origin of Alzheimer’s disease yet and research is being conducted to better understand the disease.
What are the symptoms?
The most common and often earliest symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is the inability or difficulty remembering new information. As people age, there is a gradual loss in memory and ability to process information, however if there is serious memory loss, confusion or other changes, it is often the sign of a more serious condition like Alzheimer’s disease. The disease typically attacks the area of the brain where learning occurs first, which explains the difficultly many have with their short term memory.
As the disease progresses symptoms can include: disorientation, mood and behavioral changes, severe confusion, paranoia and suspicion, serious memory loss, and eventually difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking. With the advancement of the disease, the symptoms get progressively more serious and more difficult to handle. Many who are diagnosed and experience these symptoms have a difficult time recognizing that there is a problem even though it may be obvious to family and friends.
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, please contact a healthcare professional. It is important to get assistance in treating this disease early as it can help slow its progression.
What can you do
While there is no current cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatments for symptoms. These treatments can slow the progression of the disease and worsening of symptoms, improving the quality of life for the patient and their family.
While there are no proven health and lifestyle factors for preventing Alzheimer’s disease, a healthy life style will not hurt. Nutritious diets, physical activity, social engagement and mentally stimulating activities have been associated with keeping people healthy. Adding healthy choices such as these could reduce risk for cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s disease. This correlation is not concrete but adding these changes to your lifestyle will promote general health and keep your body strong.
Currently lots of research is being conducted in order to find better ways of treating Alzheimer’s disease. Early diagnosis and treatment options are dramatically improving. For additional resources and information, the Alzheimer’s Association has options for patients and families facing this disease. If you have questions regarding Alzheimer’s disease, please contact your local community pharmacist or healthcare provider for more information.
About Megan K. Fischer
Megan Fischer is a Doctor of Pharmacy student with University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. A student by day and a workhorse by night, Megan works as a student researcher at her school of pharmacy and as an intern pharmacist at Poudre Valley Hospital. She is an active member of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP) and Industry Pharmacists Organization (IPhO). She graduated from University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Biochemistry and minored in Chemistry and Economics. Megan plans to work as a clinical pharmacist specializing in critical care or infectious disease after graduation. In her free time, she hikes and camps all the while trying to find moments for a nice nap.