Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that usually starts gradually and then gets worse over time. It is named after the German psychiatrist and pathologist Alois Alzheimer who first described the disease in 1906. The cause of the disease is still largely unknown, but it is generally diagnosed based on a study of medical history, history from relatives, and behavioural observations. Read on to learn about how this disease affects the body, how it develops over time, and how it is treated.
More than just memory loss
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, which is a general term for memory loss and decreased ability to think over time that interferes with a person’s daily functioning. Alzheimer’s, in fact, accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of dementia cases. In addition to causing a decreased ability to remember things both short term and long term, Alzheimer’s can lead to decreased thinking and reasoning skills. It is not considered to be a normal part of the aging process, though the risk of developing Alzheimer’s does increase with age.
One of the most common early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is short term memory loss, which in its early stages is often mistaken for a side effect of ageing or stress. This type of memory loss often takes on the form of an inability to remember recently learned facts and an inability to acquire new information. Those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might also exhibit symptoms of apathy, depression, irritability, and problems with functions of planning, attentiveness, and abstract thinking. This stage is generally referred to as the pre-dementia stage.
Beyond the pre-dementia stage, early onset is characterized by increased impairment to memory and learning, with heightened symptoms like absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, and confusion in situations outside of the familiar.
Middle- and late-stage symptoms
As Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease, symptoms from early onset will continue to worsen. Those in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s will exhibit heightened forms of memory loss and impaired cognition, at times initiating the same conversation over and over, being unable to recall vocabulary or perform complex motor sequences, facing difficulty reading and writing, and having trouble identifying close relatives. People affected by this stage of Alzheimer’s will also exhibit behavioral changes such as involuntary bouts of crying or laughing (labile affect), wandering, and irritability.
During the final stages of Alzheimer’s, an affected individual will become completely dependent on caregivers. This is because language is typically reduced to simple phrases or even single words at this point, eventually even progressing to complete loss of speech. Even the simplest of tasks cannot be performed independently, and muscle mass and overall mobility have greatly declined by this stage, as well. Those in this stage might also exhibit extreme apathy or exhaustion, sometimes coupled with aggression. It is typically an external factor such as pneumonia or pressure ulcers that results in death—not the disease itself.
Unfortunately the effects of Alzheimer’s disease cannot be reversed; the disease can only be managed. Some medications exist to treat the cognitive problems of Alzheimer’s, but these medications have not been proven to slow the progression of the disease. There are also types of therapy and stimulation-oriented treatments that can be used to help reduce certain problem behaviors and improve mood. Primarily, however, caregiving is needed to help those who can no longer live independently.