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Alzheimer's Disease

Symptoms and treatment of Alzheimer's Disease

First identified in 1906, Alzheimer's disease is a slowly advancing brain disease that results in death for the patient. While there is an early-onset form of the disease, most cases of Alzheimer's disease appear in those aged 65 or older. The chance of being affected by Alzheimer's disease increases with age.

As the disease progresses, brain cells lose the ability to function properly as they are damaged and destroyed. The brains of individuals with Alzheimer's disease show two indicators of the disease called "plaques" and "tangles." As these structures spread throughout the brain, they effectively suffocate nerve cells, and lead to the shrinkage of entire regions of the brain. As brain areas responsible for various functions (from memory to language ability) succumb, the individual loses those functions.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease affects one of the most important areas of the body: the brain. Since so much of a person's life and relationships relies on the thinking abilities and memory capacity of the brain, the early stages of Alzheimer's disease can be very frustrating for friends and family members. The most well-known Alzheimer's disease symptom is loss of memory, but those suffering from the disease will also experience confusion, difficulty with normal thinking tasks, difficulty speaking and changes in behavior. As the disease progresses, the patient will find it increasingly difficult to work or participate in his or her normal daily activities and interactions. In the final stages, the body and organs are unable to perform the important functions which keep the individual alive, and the result is death. The progression of the disease can occur over a time span as short as five years or as long as 20.

Some conditions can be mistaken for Alzheimer's. Mild memory loss in the absence of Alzheimer's disease is common as we age, and if it doesn't worsen or spread to other areas of a person's life, it's not usually a cause for concern. As well, Alzheimer-like symptoms can appear if an individual is dehydrated or malnourished, has a fever or a head injury, or if he or she is experiencing an adverse reaction to a new medication. The results of most of these occurrences can be reversed, however the progression of Alzheimer's disease cannot. In any instance of disturbed or unusual behavior, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease

If you suspect that a loved one may be experiencing one or more symptoms associated with Alzheimer's disease, it is important to see a doctor. He or she will find out if the symptom you are concerned about is an indicator of the disease or of another condition. While the condition is always fatal, early diagnosis allows the patient's family to prepare for the care he or she will need as the disease progresses.

There is no litmus test that proves the existence of the disease, but a diagnosis of the condition is correct 80 to 90 percent of the time. A medical doctor will evaluate the patient's medical history and administer a number of tests. These tests include a physical exam and blood tests to help rule out other contributing conditions. A mental test will also be administered, requiring the patient to perform simple memory and processing tasks. In some cases other specialists may be involved in the diagnosis, and brain imaging can be used to evaluate the progression of the disease.

Treatment for Alzheimer's disease

There is no known cure for Alzheimer's disease. Some drugs have been used which slow down the speed of the disease in some patients; however, in the list of Alzheimer's drugs available, there are none that have been shown to halt or reverse the progression of Alzheimer's. Vitamin E has recently been used for its antioxidant properties and possible nerve-protecting properties. There are a variety of alternative treatments touted in the management of Alzheimer's disease, but these options lack the scientific testing required to gain medical approval as viable treatment for the disease.

In addition to treatments for the cognitive side of the disorder, sometimes addressing the behavioral side of the disease is useful. As patients lose their memory and other cognitive abilities, they may exhibit a number of unusual behaviors such as restlessness, general distress and sudden spoken or physical outbursts. Doctors and specialists have noted that many of these behaviors are triggered by other factors that the person with Alzheimer's disease no longer knows how to recognize or control. These can include physical symptoms of other conditions including minor infections of the ears, sinuses or urinary tract, normal bodily signals that are no longer recognized including a full bladder, thirst or uncomfortable temperature, or side effects of medications. Alleviating these feelings and making use of stress management techniques can often bring increased calm to the patient.

Resources

There are a significant number of resources available for those who have loved ones suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Your doctor can put you in touch with any local organizations or Alzheimer's care centers that offer assistance to patients or their families. The Alzheimer's Association is a national organization aimed at researching the disease and providing care and advice to those affected by it (www.alz.org). Alzheimer's disease information is available on a number of informative websites, but keep in mind that they are no substitute for the advice of your healthcare professional.

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