Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disease that generally appears in people over 60 years of age. It is estimated that more than 36 million people are affected worldwide.
The disease is named in honor of Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who in 1906 studied the brain of a woman who had died of a rare disease that included memory loss, language problems and behavioral disturbances. When this woman died, Dr. Alzheimer examined her brain and discovered abnormal accumulations in the brain of so-called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.
The first symptoms are usually mild memory problems, which slowly worsen. As the disease progresses, the damage often involves other brain functions such as language or reasoning. Dr. Bayés Rusiñol, specialist in Neurology and member of Top Doctors states that, in more advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain damage is so extensive that it prevents the person from being able to carry out the simplest tasks.
At the onset of the disease, memory fails for the most recent events, such as: having gone to visit someone and not remembering it, repeatedly asking about something, forgetting appointments, errands or reading something and not remembering it the next day. Later on, older and older memories are erased which, in severe stages, can be the names of family members, the death of a close person years before or where one has worked for years.
Alzheimer’s: moments of lucidity
When Alzheimer’s disease is in its severe stage, family members sometimes report the appearance of moments of lucidity during which the patients recognize, for example, a relative they have not recognized for a long time. Caregivers know that the patient has a smile, a wink, which translates into short moments of lucidity despite long periods of disconnection.
Lucidity is promoted by showing support and affection for the patient, sharing their views. Repeating and rephrasing a patient’s sentence reinforces it, as well as the use of positive expressions, without emphasizing errors.
Is Alzheimer’s hereditary?
Alzheimer’s develops due to a series of events occurring in the brain over a long period of time that are not yet fully understood. The cause is thought to be multiple and complex and depends on genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Some publications support that suffering intense and prolonged stress would have a negative effect on the brain and could bring forward the first symptoms.
It has been estimated that less than 5% of Alzheimer’s patients have hereditary or familial forms of early onset before the age of 65.
Is Alzheimer’s associated with any other disease?
There is growing evidence that vascular disease risk factors such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol may also be risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In addition, people with Down syndrome are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease earlier than other people in the adult population.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s
Having problems with memory does not mean that a person has Alzheimer’s disease. Various health problems can cause memory and thinking problems. There are dementia-like symptoms caused by treatable conditions such as depression, drug interactions, thyroid gland problems, alcohol abuse or certain vitamin deficiencies. For that reason, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease requires a careful medical evaluation including: a complete medical history and a neurological and physical examination. In addition, a complete neuropsychological examination and a blood test are necessary. It is also recommended to perform a structural study of the brain through neuroimaging, CT and/or MRI. Amyloid PET may be useful in the evaluation of subjects with early-onset cognitive impairment or dementia and also in cases of amnestic mild cognitive impairment with onset before the age of 75 years in which other complementary tests have not been able to rule out or confirm AD with sufficient certainty.
Can Alzheimer’s disease be prevented?
Regarding the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, it is known, for example, that lifestyle can modify the course of the disease and delay the onset of its symptoms. There is evidence that regular physical and mental exercise, a Mediterranean diet and leisure activities that involve stimulating challenges are protective factors against the development of this disease.
In relation to the effect of stress, there is growing evidence that certain meditation practices, such as mindfulness, could help the brain to function better.
Alzheimer’s disease: treatment
Alzheimer’s is a complex disease for which there is currently no cure. But, there are several treatments, such as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, that can help people maintain brain function, especially attention and manage behavioral symptoms. For this reason, early diagnosis and medical follow-up with a neurologist is important.
Cognitive training by the neuropsychologist is based on the result of the previous cognitive examination and is as important as drugs to improve and maintain cognitive functions as long as possible.