January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month
Alzheimer’s disease has a major impact on the health of Canadians. About 500,000 Canadians suffer from some type of dementia (mental deterioration), and 60% of these have Alzheimer’s disease. About 60% of people in long-term care facilities have Alzheimer’s disease, and 1 in 5 people with Parkinson’s disease will develop it. The US Alzheimer’s Society estimates that about $90 billion is spent annually in medical treatment and nursing home care, lost productivity, and early death due to Alzheimer’s disease.
There will be over 1 million Canadians living with dementia by the year 2038, largely because the “baby boom” generation (people born between 1946 and 1960) will have reached old age.
We still don’t understand exactly how Alzheimer’s disease damages the brain. Somehow, cells are damaged and eventually die in different areas of the brain. The damaged areas of the brain contain abnormalities called senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The death of brain cells leads to dementia, characterized by memory loss, impaired judgment, and behavioural changes.
Eventually, the person loses their speech as well as their bladder and bowel control. People with Alzheimer’s typically die of infections such as pneumonia or other medical problems. Most people live for about 7 years after diagnosis, but some have lived for up to 20 years.
Each case of Alzheimer’s usually affects at least two lives: the person with the condition, and the patient’s spouse or child who gradually becomes a full-time caregiver as the disease progresses. Caring for an individual with Alzheimer’s can be demanding and stressful. Many caregivers must eventually face the difficult decision of placing their loved one in institutional care.
With Alzheimer’s, we look more at risk factors than direct causes.
There may be a genetic factor in Alzheimer’s disease, since we know it runs in some families. Researchers have even found a gene that causes a particularly severe form of the disease. If you inherit this gene from only one parent, you have an increased chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease, compared to people with the normal gene. Inheriting it from both parents means you’ll almost certainly get the disease, and at an earlier age.
Familial autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease (FAD) is the name given when Alzheimer’s disease is clearly passed on from generation to generation in a family. It typically comes on before the age of 60, and the Alzheimer’s gene, called APOE e4, turns up in many family members. FAD only explains about 6% of all Alzheimer’s disease cases, however.
Another type of Alzheimer’s disease, sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, also runs in families, but to a much lesser degree. It rarely appears before the age of 70. If one of your parents had Alzheimer’s disease but didn’t carry the APOE e4 gene, your risk is only slightly higher than that of the general population.
Even if no one in your family has had Alzheimer’s, you can still get sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. Most researchers believe there are other genes that can make people susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, but genes alone aren’t enough – some other trigger has to set off the disease process.
Possible risk factors include:
- head injury: Studies show that people who have suffered concussions are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later on.
- vascular disease: Coexisting small strokes increase the risk and severity of memory problems in Alzheimer’s disease.
- inflammation: People with arthritis are less likely to get Alzheimer’s. It is speculated that the medications used to reduce inflammation in arthritis may have a beneficial effect on an inflammatory process in the brain.
- gender: Women are nearly twice as likely as men to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
- education: Research suggests that better educated people are less prone to Alzheimer’s. Those who already have the disease do better if they keep mentally active – an unused brain may deteriorate faster.
- toxins (e.g., aluminum): A controversial and unproven theory links aluminum in drinking water to senile plaque formation. Earlier studies hinted at a connection, but not according to recent studies that are larger and better-designed.
- prions: Some scientists speculate that prions, tiny infectious particles made of protein, may be involved in Alzheimer’s disease by infecting the brain.
Symptoms and Complications
Mild forgetfulness is normal with advancing age, but healthy older people are usually good at remembering what’s most important to them. There is reason for concern if they start forgetting what they were just doing, get lost in their own neighbourhood, or start displaying uncharacteristic or inappropriate behaviour. If your husband is always misplacing his keys, it may mean nothing. If he starts leaving them in the fridge or the sugar bowl, it may be cause for concern.
One of the most recognizable symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is a speech problem, such as a person choosing the wrong words, or not understanding simple sentences. Problems with numbers are also common. These are the most reliable signs of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Other early signs include forgetfulness about recent events (loss of short-term memory), trouble with tasks such as housework or balancing a chequebook, and poor judgment.
In the later stages, people with Alzheimer’s disease begin to have trouble caring for themselves and recognizing friends or loved ones. They may become confused, agitated, or aggressive.
The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada lists these 10 warning signs to be aware of:
- memory loss that affects day-to-day function
- difficulty performing familiar tasks
- problems with language
- disorientation of time and place
- poor or decreased judgment
- problems with abstract thinking
- misplacing things
- changes in mood and behaviour
- changes in personality
- loss of initiative
Making the Diagnosis
Unfortunately, there’s still no safe, definitive test for Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis is made based on the type and progression of symptoms and by eliminating the many other possible causes of dementia, which include:
- vascular dementia – caused by small strokes that damage brain tissue
- nutritional and vitamin deficiencies, such as pernicious anemia or pellagra
- liver, kidney, heart, lung, or thyroid disease, which can all cause temporary or permanent mental impairment
- dementia pugilistica – “boxer’s brain,” caused by repeated head trauma
- Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, or end-stage multiple sclerosis – the dementia of Parkinson’s disease in particular can be hard to distinguish from Alzheimer’s disease, as they share many symptoms
- depression – this treatable condition is sometimes mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease
- medications – several medications can cause symptoms (e.g., agitation, confusion, or disorientation) that look like Alzheimer’s disease, including some pain medications and certain medications used for depression or anxiety – talk to your doctor or pharmacist to find out whether a medication you or a loved one is taking could cause these symptoms
These and other possible causes of dementia can mostly be identified with a few tests and questions. If the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are present, and there’s no other explanation for them, the physician will give a diagnosis of “probable Alzheimer’s disease.” This diagnosis is right 9 times out of 10.
Treatment and Prevention
Because there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and maintaining the quality of the person’s life. Certain medications, called cholinesterase inhibitors, can help maintain brain function and delay the progression of the disease for several months to a year. People with moderate to advanced disease have been treated with a medication called memantine, which may provide additional benefit. This medication can also be used by people who do not tolerate cholinesterase inhibitors. However, the course of the disease is such that it eventually continues to worsen.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to help people with Alzheimer’s disease that do not involve medications. These include:
- reminder notes
- personal organizing tools such as date books and beepers
- providing instructions for activities such as bathing, eating, and dressing
- family counselling and support
- behaviour training for inappropriate behaviours
The behaviour changes of Alzheimer’s disease can be very distressing to people and their families or caregivers. Medications may be used to control severe agitation or behaviours which may result in physical harm or are very distressing to the person. However, in many cases agitation can be controlled without medications.
Not enough is known about the causes of Alzheimer’s to provide clear advice about how to prevent it. Research into the effects of tobacco and alcohol is just getting underway, but there’s still no hard evidence one way or the other. These drugs are clearly linked to other forms of dementia, however, it’s a good idea for people who want their brains to stay healthy to avoid both.
An increased level of fitness helps the brain to stay healthy, so aerobic exercise may be a factor in either preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s. Computerized “brain fitness” programs are becoming popular to keep the brain active and possibly protect it from deterioration. So far there is no convincing scientific evidence that this is effective in preventing Alzheimer’s, but investigations are ongoing.
Contact your local Alzheimer’s society for more information on new advances in research and suggestions for helping a person who has Alzheimer’s disease.
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