Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive decline in memory and mental functioning. It is one of several illnesses called “dementias” with memory and intellectual impairment as their primary symptoms. Dementia of the Alzheimer Type is the most common form of dementia today. Though we do not yet have a full understanding of the illness, more is learned every year about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, and new treatments are being developed.
Increasing age is the single most consistent risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. In a general sense, dementia affects approximately 15-20% of individuals over the age of 65, and up to 45% of individuals after the age of 80 suffer from some form of dementia. More than half of these cases are due to Alzheimer’s disease. It tends to affect women slightly more than men, and it can run in families. In addition, people with Down’s syndrome are particularly at risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
It is possible, however, to have “early onset” Alzheimer’s disease with onset as early as the 40’s, but in general, the older we get, the more likely we are to develop Alzheimer’s type dementia.
Typically in the early stages of the illness, subtle changes to short-term memory develop. Subsequently, they may become easily lost, may have difficulty finding the right word in conversation, or have difficulty remembering names. They may also develop difficulty eating or dressing since the illness affects both memory and complex physical tasks. There are high rates of associated depression, anxiety, and even hallucinations, particularly in more advanced cases. In addition, it should be mentioned that dementia is not considered a normal part of aging, and it differs significantly from the normal, mild memory changes that occur as we all grow older.
Despite ongoing research, there is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. There are also no proven strategies for delaying the onset of the illness, though things like a healthy diet and both physical and mental exercise are likely helpful. Other strategies such as estrogen replacement, vitamin E, and selegiline supplements may be helpful but remain unproven. Ginkgo biloba has not been shown to provide clinically significant benefit for Alzheimer’s disease.
There are several medications approved by the FDA for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, and though they are not a cure, they can slow down the rate of disease progression and help the individual live independently a longer . time as independently as possible. A thorough physical examination, with appropriate laboratory workup, is important to reveal any potentially reversible causes of memory impairment and to help maximize existing functioning.
Psychological and environmental management includes educating the patient and family about the illness and what can be done at home to improve safety and routine functioning. It is important to recognize that up to 75% of individuals with dementia will eventually require partial hospitalization or long-term placement in a facility due to the progressive decline in ability to eat, change clothes, perform self-care, and other daily activities. The goal is always to provide the least restrictive environment that allows for provides adequate safety and care.
For more information about Alzheimer’s Disease or for a free assessment, please call the CHRISTUS St. Patrick Access Center today toll-free at 1-888-812-2237. Brian Mooney, M.D., is a local physician specializing in psychiatry. He is an active member of the CHRISTUS St. Patrick Hospital Medical Staff.