Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It represents between 60 and 80% of all cases of dementia. The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age, with the vast majority of patients over the age of 65 when they first experience the signs of the disease. However, about 5% of Alzheimer’s patients experience an early onset form of disease, characterized by symptoms as early as age 40.
Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease and Diagnosis
The first signs of Alzheimer’s disease usually revolve around poor retention of new information and general memory, much greater than simple “forgetfulness.” This cognitive decline can be gradual, which is why it may take patients or their families longer to seek medical advice for a clinical diagnosis. As the disease progresses, it will become clearer that there is an underlying cognitive impairment. The most common signs of advancing Alzheimer’s Disease are:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty with speech
- Difficulty with spatial awareness
- Personality changes and mood swings
- Increasing difficulty with basic daily functions
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease relies heavily on medical history, risk factors, and cognitive testing. Ultimately, there is no diagnostic test that can fully confirm Alzheimer’s disease – this can only be done in a postmortem autopsy. Rather, the primary care physician or neurologist will use the information available to them to make their best judgment.
Causes of Alzheimer’s Disease
The ultimate cause of Alzheimer’s disease is the degradation of nerve cells, also known as neurons in the brain. This is a consequence of the build-up of amyloid plaques and presence of neurofibrillary tangles. Unfortunately, there is no diagnostic imaging or test to confirm the exact presence or prevalence of these structures.
Modern medicine has not yet found a determining factor that causes Alzheimer’s disease. Current medical theory revolves around a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental exposure as the most likely causes of the disease.
We do know that certain risk factors do exist. Other than genetic predisposition and environmental factors (one or both of which may be significant factors), brain injury and conditions that increase the risk of heart disease (diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure) seem to increase the risks of developing Alzheimer’s Disease later in life. Protective factors may include good diet and exercise habits.
Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease
Winthrop Neuroscience Medical PC and Winthrop Geriatric Medicine Associates have collaborated to create the Alzheimer’s Program at Winthrop-University Hospital. This program is committed to providing high quality care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. By utilizing a multidisciplinary approach to care, we are able to leverage the strengths of our Geriatric Medicine, Neurosciences, Psychiatry, Psychology, Social Work, Pharmacy and Home Care programs. We believe that this approach allows for the best possible care for our patients.
We have not yet found a treatment modality that can stop or reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Current treatment revolves around medications that slow the progression of the disease. In many cases, these medications are very effective.
It is worth noting that treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease is a priority in modern medicine, with hundreds of clinical trials currently underway to study new medications and novel forms of treatment. Until such time that an effective treatment to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease is found, early diagnosis and prompt treatment is key to ensuring the highest quality of life for the longest amount of time.