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What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Scientists aren’t sure of the cause(s) of Alzheimer’s disease, but they do know its effects: it kills brain cells and reduces the healthy connections between remaining cells, which leads to the actual, physical shrinking of the brain and the onset of progressive dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease can cause a wide range of cognitive problems, but the most prominent sign of early-stage Alzheimer’s is consistent short-term memory loss, which can express itself in many ways, from forgetting the teapot is on the stove, to forgetting which dresser drawer socks go in, to forgetting how to interpret the numbers on a bank statement, to forgetting that a question has been asked and answered several times.

Alzheimer’s disease causes progressive dementia, which means that despite treatment to slow the worsening of symptoms, the degeneration of brain cells can’t be stopped or reversed and will eventually lead to later-stage effects of Alzheimer’s disease, such as the inability to recognize family and friends, the inability to eat, bathe, dress or carry out other daily self-care tasks without help, and, in many cases, death.

Alzheimer's vs. Dementia

Many people don’t realize that there is a difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and use the two terms interchangeably. Where Alzheimer’s is a specific mental illness, dementia refers more broadly to a set of symptoms and not to a particular disease. Alzheimer’s is often referred to as a type of dementia, but a more accurate description of the relationship between the two is that Alzheimer’s disease is the primary cause of dementia.

Alzheimer’s Treatment

Medication is the primary line of defense against the progression of dementia symptoms. Alzheimer’s medications work by increasing some of the lost chemical communication between brain cells.

Other treatment for Alzheimer’s disease depends on the stage at which it is caught. Early-stage Alzheimer’s patients can benefit from practicing mental exercises and from prompts aimed at maintaining memory and normal daily functioning, such as writing reminder notes or using mnemonic devices.

Alzheimer’s Prevention

Much Alzheimer’s research focuses on finding ways to prevent or at least reduce a person’s risk of developing the disease. Although there is no guaranteed way to keep from developing Alzheimer’s, a number of health and lifestyle factors seem to influence risk, most notably:

  • Risk of heart disease. Factors that increase a person’s risk of developing heart disease — type II diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity — also seem to increase their risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
    What to do: Change your diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, lose weight, take medications as prescribed.
  • Smoking. There is a strong link between smoking and the presence of dementia symptoms, even for longtime ex-smokers.
    What to do: Quit smoking to minimize future risk as much as possible.
  • Drinking. While moderate alcohol consumption might have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s, excessive drinking raises the risk of developing it.
    What to do: Have no more than one drink daily if you’re a woman, and no more than two drinks daily if you’re a man.
  • Lack of mentally stimulating activities. Researchers are unsure of what, if any, the causal relationship is between Alzheimer’s and activities that stimulate the brain — whether people who exercise their brains improve their defenses against Alzheimer’s, or whether people who will later show clearer signs of Alzheimer’s are less inclined to engage in activities that already cause them frustration.
    What to do: Play the odds by reading, doing crossword or jigsaw puzzles, playing a musical instrument or playing board games. Regardless of whether it actually decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s, in particular, the positive results of these kinds of activities on cognitive function as a person ages have been proven.
  • Social isolation. Similar to brain-busting exercises, it’s unclear whether social interaction makes the brain more resistant to Alzheimer’s and/or to the symptoms of dementia, or whether those who are experiencing the memory loss and cognitive confusion of early-stage Alzheimer’s are much less motivated to socialize.
    What to do: Take a low-impact fitness class, join a card-playing club, become a member at your local seniors center. In addition to potentially decreasing your risk of Alzheimer’s, social activity is beneficial for emotional health and staving off other mental illnesses like depression.
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