Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and degenerative disorder that affects an individual’s brain and cognitive functions. It is a type of dementia, a general term for the deterioration of cognitive functions that affects memory, thinking, behavior, and the ability to perform everyday activities. It is also the most familiar case of dementia that affects millions worldwide.
The disease is characterized by the build-up of abnormal protein structures called plaques and tangles in the brain, which disrupts the normal operation of nerve cells and leads to their death. While the true cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet fully understood, it was first thought to be a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. It typically affects people over 65, but early-onset forms of the disease can occur in people as young as 40. Meanwhile, there is no cure for the disease, but treatments and therapies can help manage its symptoms and improve the afflicted person’s quality of life.
This blog will discuss the most common signs and symptoms of the disease. We will also discuss the causes and risk factors of the disease, as well as the available treatment options. Learning about these will help you recognize early if you or a loved one has it so you may seek the appropriate treatment immediately.
Types of Alzheimer's Disease
Currently, there are two types of Alzheimer’s disease—the early-onset and late-onset Alzheimer’s. Both have genetic components, but each type has its unique characteristics and causes.
Early-onset Alzheimer's disease
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is a rare disease that occurs in people under 65. Accounting for only 5-10% of all cases of the disease, it tends to run in families, caused by genetic mutations. The genetic mutations that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s have been identified and are known to affect three genes: APP, PSEN1, and PSEN2.
Also known as familial Alzheimer’s disease or FAD, the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are similar to those of the more common late-onset variant, including memory loss, problems with language, disorientation, mood swings, and difficulty with daily activities. Because the onset of the disease comes earlier, the symptoms may be more serious and progress more quickly.
A specialist such as a neurologist or a geriatrician can diagnose early-onset Alzheimer’s. To do so, they will conduct a thorough examination of a patient and order various tests such as cognitive and neuropsychological tests, brain imaging, and genetic testing to rule out other causes of dementia.
Late-onset Alzheimer's disease
This is the most common variant of the disease, and its symptoms may become evident in patients in their mid-60s. Signs and symptoms of the late-onset disease typically develop gradually, and may include the following:
- Loss of memory, especially of recent events
- Difficulty with problem-solving and planning
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Disorientation to time and place
- Difficulty understanding images and structures
- Speaking or writing issues
- Forgetting things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
Same as early-onset Alzheimer’s, late-onset Alzheimer’s can be diagnosed by a neurologist or a geriatrician. As mentioned earlier, the cure for this disease has not yet been discovered, but there are treatments and therapies that can help a patient manage their symptoms and improve their living situation. These include medications to improve symptoms of memory loss, therapies to help people cope with the emotional and practical challenges of the disease, and support from caregivers.
7 Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
The early signs of Alzheimer’s disease in people in their 50s can be subtle, and may be mistakenly attributed to normal aging. It’s important to be aware of these signs so that you can seek a diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible.
Here we detail the seven signs and symptoms of this debilitating disease.
1. Memory loss
Memory loss is a common early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. The memory loss associated with the disease is often characterized by difficulty remembering recent events or conversations, or forgetting appointments or important dates. As the disease progresses, memory loss becomes more serious, and the person may have trouble remembering personal information, such as their own name or address. In addition, they may also have difficulty remembering the names of family members and friends.
2. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
This is another common sign of Alzheimer’s. As the disease advances, the ailing patient may have trouble completing tasks they were previously able to do easily, like following a recipe, balancing a checkbook, or doing a crossword puzzle. At this point, they may need help with tasks that require planning and organization, such as laundry or paying bills.
Disorientation is a common symptom of Alzheimer’s that affects the person’s ability to navigate their environment and understand their surroundings as the disease progresses. The symptom could manifest in various ways, such as:
- Getting lost in familiar places. People with Alzheimer’s may become confused and disoriented in areas they have known for a long time, such as their neighborhood or home.
- Difficulty following a conversation. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble understanding the meaning of spoken or written language, making it difficult to follow a conversation.
- Showing problems with time and place. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble understanding the concept of time or may be confused about the date, time of day, or season.
- Having trouble with spatial relationships. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble recognizing the distance between objects or people in their environment, making it difficult for them to navigate. They also lose depth perception, causing them to have problems distinguishing between flat objects and 3D ones.
4. Language problems
As Alzheimer’s progresses, it affects a person’s ability to understand, use, and remember language. Language problems can manifest in a variety of ways, such as:
- Difficulty in conversation. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble expressing themselves clearly, or struggle to find the right word to use in a conversation.
- Difficulty in understanding spoken or written language. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble understanding the meaning of spoken or written words, making it difficult to follow a conversation or read a book.
- Difficulty in writing. As the disease affects their ability to spell words or form sentences, along with difficulties in reading, people with Alzheimer’s may have trouble writing.
- Difficulty in remembering names. People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble remembering the names of their family members, friends, or common objects.
5. Changes in mood and personality
When a person is easily agitated, confused, or withdrawn, these might be subtle signs that they have dementia. Here are other mood changes that you need to be aware of:
- Neglecting themselves or how they look (not bathing or want to wear the same clothes)
- Showing unexpected sexual behavior
- Too much walking
- Winding away from home
- Imagining things that aren’t happening
- Thinking that other people are hiding their stuff, or they do it themselves
- Showing signs of depression (disinterest)
- Beating others or themselves
- Getting worried easily
6. Difficulty with everyday tasks
The initial signs of dementia may be observed in a person having difficulty making plans, solving problems, preparing a budget, and doing other mundane tasks. It’s true that memory loss is part of aging, but losing one’s problem-solving and planning abilities are not.
7. Poor judgment
People may make poor, controversial decisions from time to time, or engage in risky behavior. However, it’s worse for people with Alzheimer’s as they may entirely forget about their medical condition, that they need to see a doctor immediately, or make impaired judgment like wearing excessive clothing on a hot day.
The 7 Stages of Alzheimer's Disease
Dr. Barry Reisberg, Director of the Fisher Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Research program at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, developed the Global Deterioration Scale (GDS), to help medical professionals and caregivers identify at what stage of Alzheimer’s their patient is in. The GDS identifies the seven clinical stages of Alzheimer’s disease as follows:
- Stage 1: No observable impairment (normal function)
- Stage 2: Very mild deterioration (possibly normal age-related changes)
- Stage 3: Mild cognitive impairment (early-stage Alzheimer’s disease)
- Stage 4: Moderate cognitive decline (middle-stage Alzheimer’s disease)
- Stage 5: Moderately severe decline (late-stage Alzheimer’s disease)
- Stage 6: Severe cognitive decline (late-stage Alzheimer’s disease)
- Stage 7: Very severe degeneration (end-stage Alzheimer’s disease)
It’s important to note that the progression of the disease can vary greatly from person to person. Also note that different healthcare professionals and organizations may describe the stages differently.
The Final Stage of Alzheimer's Disease
A severe decline in cognitive and physical function characterizes the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The symptoms that a person will experience during the disease’s final stages will depend on the individual, but typically include the following:
- Severe memory loss. The person may not recognize family members or friends, and may be unable to recall their personal history.
- Loss of ability to communicate. The person may need help in speaking or understanding language, or be able to say a few words.
- Loss of mobility. The person may be unable to walk, sit, or even hold their head up. They may also lose control of their bowel and bladder activity.
- Increased need for assistance. Due to the disease, the afflicted person may need more help with their daily basic activities, such as eating, dressing, and bathing.
- Increased confusion and disorientation. The person may not know where they are, or what is happening around them.
- Loss of spatial awareness. The person may cease being aware of their surroundings, or the passing of time.
- Increased risk of infection. As their immune system becomes weaker, the person with Alzheimer’s may become more susceptible to the disease.
- Difficulty swallowing. The person may have trouble ingesting their food, and may be at risk of choking.
- Need for palliative care: At this stage, the focus of care shifts to comfort measures to alleviate the patient’s symptoms and ease their living situation.
At the final stage of the disease, the patient can no longer live without assistance. Caregivers and members of the patient’s family should work closely with healthcare providers to provide appropriate care and support they need at this point in their life.
The Bottom Line
Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disorder affecting the cognitive functions of millions of people around the world. A person who has the symptoms of Alzheimer’s may not necessarily be suffering from the disease, so it’s also important to have a specialist for proper diagnosis. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential in slowing down the progression of the disease and improving the quality of life of the ailing patient.
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