Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain condition that causes dementia characterized by impaired cognition, memory and behavior. It is the most common type of dementia, making up somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. The majority of sufferers are age 65 or older, though it can appear in younger people as a result of a genetic mutation. The greatest risk factor involved in Alzheimer’s disease is aging, as otherwise harmless brain conditions begin to spiral out of control. Alzheimer’s disease is fatal, and is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.A progressive disease, Alzheimer’s symptoms appear and intensify over the course of many years. They begin with mild memory loss, but in later stages, sufferers are unable to hold conversations or respond to environmental stimuli. Patients live an average of eight years after their symptoms become apparent, but the survival range spans from four years all the way up to 20, depending on age and other health conditions.
The Causes of Alzheimer’s Symptoms
Although medical scientists are still unclear on the exact causes and processes that cause Alzheimer’s disease to emerge, two proteins in the brain are surely involved. These are beta-amyloid protein, which forms structures called plaques, and tau protein, which clump together to form tangles. These structures disrupt two important processes within and amongst neurons: internal electrical impulses and communication between neurons via chemical signals. Through the course of normal cell metabolism, beta-amyloids accumulate in the brain. In Alzheimer’s patients, however, they are far more prolific. These abundant proteins clump together and reach toxic levels, interfering with and blocking the chemical communication amongst neurons.Tau proteins, on the other hand, normally provide structural integrity within neurons. In Alzheimer’s disease they break loose, causing the neuron to degenerate. These free tau cells then clump together into tangles within the cell, causing the neuron to die. Cell death breaks the neuron chains by which the brain carries out all of its functions, from autonomic systems like breathing and digestion to higher processes like thought and speech.Plaques and tangles occur normally in all people, but their abundance marks the presence of Alzheimer’s disease and induces the characteristic symptoms. In the early, preclinical stage of the disease, plaques and tangles are not pervasive enough for behavioral and cognitive symptoms to manifest.As we age, we all experience problems with memory and thought. In the early stages of the disease, Alzheimer’s sufferers experience slightly more trouble with these cognitive activities, due to the plaques’ and tangles’ initial presence in the hippocampus. However, at this point, these problems do not have a significant impact on their everyday lives, and so the disease often goes undiagnosed until the symptoms become more problematic.
Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can vary from person to person, but as the disease progresses, sufferers experience memory loss and cognitive impairment to a greater and greater extent. These problems begin to have a negative influence on their daily tasks and quality of life. Sufferers of these mild symptoms may find themselves frequently becoming disoriented and lost. They also often experience trouble handling money, such as budgeting and paying bills. Due to their increasing cognitive impairment, they will also frequently take longer to complete daily tasks. As these problems become more and more apparent, people are often diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at this stage of the disease.
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, plaques and tangles spread outward from the hippocampus into surrounding areas of the brain. This leads to problems with perception, language, conscious thought and reasoning; at the same time, memory and confusion continue to deteriorate. During this stage, Alzheimer’s sufferers have difficulty recognizing friends and family, learning new things, and carrying out multistep tasks. The intensity of their disorientation makes it difficult, or impossible, for them to adapt and react to new or novel situations. Additionally, people afflicted with Alzheimers will, at this stage, likely experience delusions, hallucinations and paranoia.
In the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, brain tissue and function have been severely reduced due to the pervasive spread of plaques and tangles. The sufferer is unable to communicate or even care for him or herself. Ultimately, the brain is no longer able to maintain basic physiological process, and the patient dies.There is, at this time, no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, treatment can slow the degenerative process and help patients retain cognitive function. If you believe that you or someone you know may be suffering from Alzheimer’s, it is important that you or they see a doctor as quickly as possible. With prompt treatment, Alzheimer’s patients can enjoy a higher quality of life for a longer period of time after the disease’s onset.