June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. But, what exactly is Alzheimer’s disease? Continue reading to learn the differences between Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, how it affects the brain, early warning signs to look for, and how this devastating disease impacts millions of Americans.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia — a general term for the loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life — accounting for 50% to 70% of dementia cases.
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In addition to memory loss, dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease alters thinking and behavior and affects a person’s mood.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s occurs between a person’s 30s and mid-60s and is very rare. However, for most people with the disease — those with the late-onset type — symptoms first appear in their mid-60s.
While the symptoms can vary from person to person, they generally worsen over time, making independent living impossible.
How many people are affected by Alzheimer’s?
If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, you may wonder how many people are affected. The number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease is staggering: over 5 million people in the United States alone. In addition to this large number, an estimated 16 million caregivers assist someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — that’s about one out of every nine Americans!
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death in the US, according to the National Institutes on Aging (NIA).
How does Alzheimer’s disease affect the brain?
- As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, brain cells die off and fail to work correctly.
- Brain cells don’t communicate with each other.
- Brain cells damaged by toxins (such as alcohol) or infections can also contribute to memory loss.
- In addition, lack of oxygen for long periods can cause damage to the brain and lead to cell death.
What are the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s can be easily mistaken for other conditions in the early stages. For example, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:
- Memory loss disrupts daily life, like forgetting recently learned information and regularly misplaced items.
- Confusion about time or place. For example, getting lost on a familiar route to work or forgetting what day it is.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure that are unrelated to memory. For example, managing finances, cooking meals, and running the household smoothly.
What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
Dementia is a group of symptoms that can affect memory, language, and thinking. It can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia (damage to small blood vessels in the brain), Lewy body disease (a type of Parkinson’s disease), Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (an alcohol-related complication involving memory deficits), Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (a degenerative neurological disorder), or any number of other conditions.
While all types of dementia diseases have similar symptoms, such as confusion and difficulty with communication and cognition — which can vary from person to person — the key difference between these two conditions is how they progress. Alzheimer’s progresses slowly over time; other types of dementia progress quickly over months or years.
Is there a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease?
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, scientists are conducting ongoing research to find a cure and better ways to detect it early, and some medications can help with symptoms. However, Alzheimer’s drugs don’t restore memory loss or prevent the disease from progressing.
There are also lifestyle changes that might help slow down the progression of the disease. For example, diet can be an essential factor. For example, studies have found that foods like blueberries and spinach have benefits in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and improving memory and cognitive function. Other lifestyle choices — regular exercise, limiting alcohol, and getting enough sleep — can also help keep blood vessels healthy, making them less likely to get blocked by scar tissue or fats.
Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease
Awareness of Alzheimer’s disease is crucial. If you or someone close to you is experiencing memory loss or confusion, it may be essential to talk with a doctor as soon as possible. Early detection can help people with Alzheimer’s live longer and more independently.
Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website to learn how you can get involved. Also, consider signing up for the Walk To End Alzheimer’s, the world’s largest event to raise awareness and funds for the care, support, and research of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease!
This article was reviewed by Suzanne Torris, MS, RN, FNP.