Alzheimer’s disease is a condition of abnormal aging that is characterized by symptoms that include memory loss, language deterioration, impaired ability to mentally manipulate visual information, poor judgment, confusion, restlessness, and mood swings. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in people, accounting for between 60 and 80 percent of all cases. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, most people who age do not get Alzheimer’s; however, it does occur in about 1 in 9 people (11 percent) who are age 65 and older. Alzheimer’s doubles the risk of premature death in people age 70 and older.
Eventually Alzheimer’s destroys cognition, personality, and the ability to function in one’s daily activities (such as bathing, grooming, and dressing oneself). The early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease — including forgetfulness and loss of concentration — are often dismissed because they can resemble natural signs of aging. For example, “Oh, that’s Aunt Mary just being forgetful again.”
Alzheimer’s is usually initially distressing to the person who experiences it, as they lose the ability to recall information they once readily could. As a person progresses with the disease, this emotional distress lessens over time. However, the more the person with Alzheimer’s forgets, the more emotionally distressing it can often be for family members and loved ones.
Alzheimer’s was first identified more than 100 years ago by physicians, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became recognized as the most common cause of dementia. Future research is focused on early detection of the condition, so that it may be slowed or even prevented. As a progressive disease, today there is no known cure for it. There are no approved drug treatments for the condition. Non-drug treatments tend to focus on regular exercise, a healthy diet, and exercises that increase one’s cognitive activity. Art therapy, activity-based therapy, and memory training also seem to help many.
Researchers have identified a number of possible genetic risk factors for the disease, but none are conclusive or mean that a person with such a genetic anomaly will get Alzheimer’s. Regular physical exercise, a healthy diet, and constantly challenging your mind in new ways (such as gardening, doing word games, or completing crossword puzzles) have all been shown to help reduce the risk of future cognitive decline. Other factors that increase a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s include obesity, smoking, hypertension, and diabetes.
Families may have an especially difficult time in understanding and working with a loved one who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It can be a very troubling, emotional experience in having someone you love not recognize you when you visit with them.