What is Alzheimer’s Disease

The brain is one of the most important organs in the human body. Computers have a Central Processing Unit (CPU) that controls all the other parts of the computer. The human body is like a modern computer. The brain is the central processing unit of your body. Instead of a CPU, the human body has the Central Nervous System (CNS) that consists of the brain and the spinal cord. Apart from the central nervous system, the human body also has a peripheral nervous system that comprises of nerves that branch off from the spinal cord and spread to all parts of the body. 

Your brain has about 100 billion nerve cells that form connections known as synapses. Synapses allow signals from the nerve cells (that are spread to all parts of the body) to travel through the brain circuit to create thoughts, memories, sensations, emotion, and movement. 

The Human Brain

The largest part of the brain is known as the cerebrum or cerebral cortex. It is this part of the brain that responsible for the higher brain function. It has four lobes or sections. Each of the four lobes controls a variety of functions:

  • The frontal lobe: Responsible for expressive language, voluntary movement, and cognitive skills
  • The occipital lobe: Responsible for vision
  • The parietal lobe: Process information about taste, touch, temperature, and movement
  • The temporal lobe: Process memories and integrate them with the sensation of sound, sight, taste, and touch

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases. It is common in elderly people but can develop at any age. There have been so many myths about this disease. Keep reading to determine what is Alzheimer’s disease, its risk factors, symptoms, and why it is not part of the normal aging process.

Normal Aging

Aging is inevitable. You can slow or delay it, but there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Some brain functions improve as you age, while others gradually decline with time. Some of the brain functions that improve as you age include:

  • Intelligence
  • Vocabulary
  • Overall language ability

Examples of the brain functions that decline with age include:

  • Fluid intelligence
  • Processing speed
  • Abstraction
  • Conceptual reasoning
  • Memory

Alzheimer’s disease is not part of the normal aging process. It is a neurodegenerative disease that researchers are working hard to understand. There are so many brain diseases, and Alzheimer’s is one of the most common.

Alzheimer’s Disease vs. Dementia

Dementia is not Alzheimer’s disease. Many people think that they are the same thing, but that is not the truth. They are related but different from each other. 

Dementia is a greek word. It means undoing the mind. Dementia is a set of symptoms such as problems with short-term memory, thinking, judgment, and mood. These symptoms can interfere with your ability to perform everyday activities like feeding, toileting, bathing, dressing, and walking.

On the other hand, Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible but progressive brain disorder. It slowly destroys thinking and memory skills and can eventually affect your ability to carry out simple tasks. It is the leading cause of dementia symptoms. There are over 80 conditions that can cause dementia symptoms. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. In other words, Alzheimer’s disease is one of the many causes of Dementia.

Facts about Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a serious health problem. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. It is also one of the top ten diseases that can’t be slowed or cured. Deaths from diseases like cancers, stroke, HIV/AIDs, and heart diseases have been declining in the past decade, but deaths from Alzheimer’s disease are rising at a rate of 146 percent. Today, more than 50 million people have this disease, and according to recent estimates, there will be more than 76 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease by 2030. 

The majority of the cases occur between 65 and 70 years, but the average age of diagnosis is 80 years. However, the damages to the nerve cells can begin 10 to 20 years before the obvious symptoms of dementia start showing. 

How Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain

Many physical changes occur in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient. When you are awake, the brain produces plaques (beta-amyloid protein fragments) that accumulate outside the nerve cells. It also produces tangles (twisted fibers) that form within the nerve cells. The two are toxic and their accumulation in the brain causes damages to the brain cells.

Accumulation of these toxins also causes inflammations as the brain tries to clear them from the dead or dying nerve cells. As more and more nerve cells die, cerebral shrinkage (atrophy) occurs. Apart from the physical changes, the death of nerve cells in the brain also causes chemical changes. These changes include the decrease in neurotransmitters and acetylcholine.

Alzheimer’s disease is complex, and that is why we still don’t have its cure. The medications that are currently available only address the low levels of acetylcholine. Researchers are working on a drug that can help prevent protein accumulation, promote its clearance from the brain, and stop inflammation. 

Symptoms

During the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain tries to compensate despite the changes. That enables the patient to continue functioning normally, and that is why it is hard to detect AD in its early stages. As more and more nerve cells get damaged, the brain eventually becomes unable to compensate, and that is when you might be able to detect subtle changes in cognitive function. 

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can take months or years to display after the actual damage has started. The fear of this disease also contributes to this delay. Some of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease that you should look for include:

  • Shortened attention span 
  • Challenges planning and solving problems
  • Increased memory loss
  • Problem recognizing friends
  • Problem with words in both writing and speaking
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Problem coping with new situations
  • Confusion with time and place
  • Misplacing things or difficulty retracing steps
  • Withdrawal from social activities and work
  • Changes in personality and mood
  • Forgetting your appointments

Signs of severe Alzheimer’s disease

  • Seizures
  • Inability to communicate
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control
  • Increased sleeping
  • Skin infection
  • Weight loss

Many Alzheimer’s patients live for approximately 4 to 8 years after diagnosis. With good medical care, a patient can live for up to 20 years after diagnosis. AD doesn’t cause death itself. It is the complications of immobility and infections like pneumonia that cause death. 

Risk factors

There is no known single cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies show that it develops from multiple risk factors. Some of the risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease include:

Age: It is not a direct cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but the risk of this disease doubles after every five years in people above the age of 65 years. 

Genetics: The risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease is higher in people whose one of their first degree relatives has this disease. If your parents have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, you should talk about it with a doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor will recommend some simple lifestyle changes that can help lower your risks.

Some of the lifestyle-related risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Smoking
  • Air pollution
  • Poor diet
  • Sleep apnea
  • High alcohol intake
  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Hypertension
  • Insulin resistance

Check out our article on how to optimize brain health.

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