What You Need to Know About Alzheimer's Disease

Learn about the causes of Alzheimer's and get tips to help lower your risk.

wooden table with a photo album and polaroid photographs

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that affects memory, behavior and thinking abilities. It’s the leading cause of dementia, or a decline of cognitive function that interferes with daily activities.

Alzheimer’s is quite common, with a new diagnosis made every 65 seconds in the U.S., and the numbers are on the rise. According to a study published in September 2018 by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2014 Alzheimer’s and related dementias affected an estimated 5 million Americans age 65 and older, or 1.6 percent of the population. By the year 2060, that number is expected to more than double to 3.3 percent, when it’s predicted that 13.9 million Americans will have the disease.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's typically appear after age 60 and the risk of developing it double every five years after age 65.

Scientists are still learning about the causes of Alzheimer’s, but it involves the buildup of abnormal protein clumps, called “plaques” and “tangles,” in the brain. The exact role of plaques and tangles is still being studied, but experts believe they keep brain cells from communicating with each other and may eventually cause cell death.

Alzheimer's symptoms

Symptoms vary for each person and change as the disease progresses. Early on, you might experience forgetfulness, a shorter attention span and difficulty finishing familiar tasks.

Other early-stage symptoms include:

  • Concentration problems
  • The inability to store new information
  • Planning difficulties
  • Trouble functioning at work

Some people with early-stage symptoms might be experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with MCI have worse memory problems, compared to others their age, but are still able to function in daily life. Just because you have MCI, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop Alzheimer’s—your symptoms may remain the same or get better over time.

As the disease progresses to the moderate or middle-stage, you may:

  • Forget personal information like your address or phone number
  • Have a hard time recognizing family and friends
  • Experience hallucinations or delusions
  • Wander or get lost more often

Finally, late-stage Alzheimer’s can interfere with basic bodily functions like the ability to walk, swallow or control bowel and bladder habits. This stage normally requires full-time assistance from a caregiver who can help with personal care needs.

Diagnosis and treatment

If you experience symptoms like forgetfulness or a shorter attention span, your doctor will start to monitor your cognitive skills over time and regularly ask questions about your behaviors. Since it's difficult to accurately answer those questions by yourself, you should bring a friend or family member with you to appointments. If your cognitive health continues to decline, your doctor will perform medical tests to rule out other conditions. For example, they may take blood or urine samples to check for diabetes or thyroid problems, or send you for an MRI scan to check for other brain conditions.

People with a strong family history of Alzheimer’s disease might be more likely to develop the condition. If you have close relatives with Alzheimer's, let your doctor know so they can begin cognitive testing at the appropriate age.

There's no cure for Alzheimer's currently, but there are medications that can offer symptom relief. The goal of treatment is to maximize your quality of life and give you as much meaningful time with loved ones as possible.

Why are more Americans dying of Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the US, according to a 2017 report from the CDC, and deaths from Alzheimer’s more than doubled (123 percent) between 2000 and 2015. Since people over age 65 are most at risk for Alzheimer’s, the CDC suggests this increase may be due, at least in part, to people living longer. It could also be attributed to more accurate Alzheimer’s diagnoses, or doctors correctly naming it as cause of death. It's important to note that Alzheimer's affects far more women than men, as well, and the death rate among women jumped 63 percent between 1999 and 2014.

How to lower your risk

While you can’t prevent Alzheimer’s, certain healthy habits may offer some protection:

  • Avoid tobacco: Make a quit plan or find an addiction specialist near you.
  • Follow the MIND Diet.
  • Exercise regularly: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise weekly.
  • Add simple, brain-boosting habits, such as reading, to your daily routine.

If you experience Alzheimer’s symptoms, don’t wait to see your doctor. A prompt diagnosis can let treatment start sooner, which may help you stay independent longer.

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