Understanding Alzheimer's

Stages of Alzheimer's disease and who it affects.

As recently as the 1960s Alzheimer's disease was considered a rare disorder. Today it's recognized as the leading cause of age-related dementia, a broad medical term that refers to the loss of cognitive functions such as thinking, remembering and making decisions. Alzheimer's causes dementia by attacking nerve cells in the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. As more and more cells are destroyed, patients lose memories and the ability to reason and communicate. Personalities and behavior change. Eventually patients require total care. The Alzheimer's Association says that people with the disease die an average of four to six years after diagnosis, but the duration of the disease can vary from three to 20 years.

The cause remains unknown and no cure exists. Researchers are beginning to unravel the mystery of Alzheimer's, so there is reason for optimism. As they identify Alzheimer's risk factors and uncover clues about causes, researchers are beginning to understand how the brain responds to the chemical and structural damage brought on by the disease. Their findings are leading the way to new methods for diagnosing and treating the disease and maybe even preventing it. Prescription drugs are available to help slow mental deterioration during early stages of the disease.

Who has Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's disease affects 5 million Americans, 4.9 of which are over age 65, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Onset typically occurs in people 60 and older, but in rare cases, people in their 40s and 50s can develop the disease. About 3 percent of those ages 65 to 74 have Alzheimer's. The figure rises to 19 percent for those ages 75 to 84, and to 47 percent for those 85 and older. Because the elderly population is growing rapidly, estimates predict as many as 14 million people in the United States will have the disease by 2050.

Despite its prevalence among the elderly, Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. While some memory loss is normal as we age, the loss in reasoning and functioning that accompanies Alzheimer's is not. The diagnosis of Alzheimers in former President Ronald Reagan led to the establishment of the Alzheimer's Association's Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute. He died in 2004, 10 years after his diagnosis. Other people of note who had the disease include British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and actress Rita Hayworth.

How does Alzheimer's progress?

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, with symptoms growing worse over time. Physicians and researchers use scales with five or more stages to measure the progress of the disease, however, it is often categorized in three broad stages; mild, moderate and severe. Early stages of the disease often go unnoticed because the onset of symptoms is so gradual. The person may be slightly more forgetful than normal, not remembering the names of familiar people right away or having some trouble finding the right word. Such symptoms are often shrugged off by the person or close associates if the effects on daily life or job performance is minimal.

Mild stage

  • Memory loss becomes more noticeable
  • Concentrating and paying attention becomes harder, leading to difficulties in understanding written material, doing calculations or making job-related decisions
  • Misplacing or losing valuable items
  • Momentary disorientation in familiar surroundings
  • Some changes in personality and judgment

Moderate stage

  • Memory loss about recent events and some details of personal lives
  • Difficulty finding the right word or substituting inappropriate words
  • Difficulty in performing tasks such as planning meals and dressing
  • Increased disorientation
  • Agitation, anxiety, suspiciousness
  • Confusion between day and night
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Wandering off and not knowing how to return
  • Failure to recognize friends and relatives

Severe stage

  • Memory loss nearly complete
  • Severe disorientation and confusion
  • Speech declines to a few intelligible words
  • Loss of physical functions like walking and sitting up
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control
  • Loss of appetite
  • Total dependence on caregiver



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