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Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition that stems from changes in brain function, and ultimately affects memory, thinking and behavior. Most individuals are diagnosed with Alzheimers at age 65 or later; diagnosis prior to age 65 is considered early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is progressive in nature, meaning symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years.

Most people experience mild memory changes and/or slowed thinking as they age, but Alzheimer’s is a much more serious condition, stemming from the irreversible loss of brain cells. The most common early symptoms include forgetting recent conversations or events, and difficulty remembering newly learned information. The symptoms worsen as brain cell loss continues. In the later stages, those with Alzheimer’s have difficulty carrying out everyday tasks and have significant memory impairment. Eventually, they have trouble speaking, walking and swallowing.

Alzheimer’s most commonly leads to issues with the following:

- Orientation (confusion about time and place, getting lost)
- Memory (forgetting names and everyday objects, repeating statements or questions)
- Thinking and reasoning (difficulty concentrating, multitasking, having conversations, managing finances)
- Judgement and decision making (i.e. wearing inappropriate clothes for certain weather conditions)
- Planning and performing everyday tasks (i.e. cooking and cleaning)
- Changes in personality and behavior (i.e. depression, social withdrawal, mood swings, distrusting others, irritability, delusions)

Scientists believe that Alzheimer’s Disease is caused by a combination of genetics, lifestyle habits, and environmental factors, though there is still much unknown about the specific causes. The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s increases significantly with age and is more common in women than men. If a biological parent or sibling has Alzheimer’s, one’s likelihood of developing the disease increases. There are a few genetic mutations that correlate with the development of Alzheimer’s, though these are very rare. Additionally, head injuries, excess alcohol consumption, poor sleep patterns, and mild cognitive impairment all increase one’s propensity for developing Alzhiemer’s. Certain lifestyle factors also increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. Lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and poorly controlled Type II Diabetes can all increase one’s risk for Alzhiemer’s.

Many individuals may not recognize that they are suffering from Alzheimer’s, and family and friends may be the first to recognize symptoms. If you notice your loved one experiencing signs of Alzheimer’s, it is important to bring the symptoms to their attention and encourage them to get help as soon as possible. Early treatment can help slow the progression of the disease.

At present, Alzheimer’s is not a preventable condition, but decreasing risk factors, such as poor diet, exercise, etc., can lower one’s risk and slow onset and progression. Research has shown that participating in activities that require mental and social engagement may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Some drug treatments aim to slow the cognitive and physical decline that accompanies Alzheimer’s. The two most common are cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. Research continues to explore other treatment options, as well as ways to prevent and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

If your loved one has Alzheimer’s, it is important to adapt your lifestyle to better care for their needs. Below are some suggested approaches to help ease their experience:

- Keep valuables such as keys, wallet and phone in the same place at all times so they don’t become lost
- Use a checklist to keep track of medications
- Have finances set up on automatic deposit/payment
- Install alarms on windows and doors, so you know if your loved one has left the house
- Remove clutter in the home to avoid confusing situations and potential injury
- Install sturdy handrails on stairs and in bathrooms to assist with physical changes
- Have fewer mirrors in the house if they cause confusion or anxiety
- Keep photographs around the house to assist with memory
- Make sure the person with Alzheimer’s carries a medical identification card with them, in case they get lost or wander from home.