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Alzheimer’s Dementia is Not a Normal Part of Aging

We all worry about becoming more forgetful as we age, but Alzheimer’s dementia isn’t a normal part of aging. Understanding this condition is important so you can catch early signs in yourself or loved ones, and take action.

Alzheimer’s dementia (AD) is a degenerative brain disease and accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. It is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in older adults. It’s different from dementia, which is a general term for loss of language, memory, problem-solving and other thinking abilities (cognitive abilities) that are severe enough to impair daily life and independent function.

Causes of Alzheimer's Dementia

Several factors can cause Alzheimer’s dementia. These include:

  • Age: The biggest known risk factor! After the age of 65, the risk of AD doubles every five years. After age 85, the risk reaches almost one-third.
  • Family history and genetics: AD is highly heritable and the risk increases if more than one family member has the illness.
  • Head injury: Protect your brain by buckling your seat belt, wearing your helmet during sports and fall-proofing your home.
  • Cardiovascular health: Risk increases with conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels such as heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke.

Alzheimer's Dementia Symptoms

The speed of disease progression varies with each person, but symptoms of AD generally worsen over time.

  • Memory
    • Difficulty finding words, remembering recent events/people.
    • Losing or misplacing valuable objects.
  • Executive function and judgement/problem solving
    • Increasing trouble planning or organizing/loss of insight into these issues.
    • Problems with complex tasks (paying bills, cooking, balancing a checkbook)
    • Usually a family member/friend brings this to the attention of providers.
  • Other cognitive domains
    • Getting lost in familiar places
    • Difficulty driving
    • Struggling with language (occurs later in the disease course).

Behavioral and psychological symptoms

This usually develops in later stages and includes:

  • Apathy, social disengagement, irritability – needs to be distinguished from depression
  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Wandering
  • Psychosis (seeing and hearing things that other people cannot, delusions, paranoia)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Needing help with basic tasks (eating, bathing, dressing) and difficulty controlling bladder and/or bowels (usually in advanced stages)

Diagnosis & Treatment

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s dementia is a multi-stage process that includes:

  • Speaking with the person and family members/friends.
  • Standardized memory and cognitive (thinking) tests.
  • Blood tests to check for vitamin deficiencies, chemical or hormonal (especially thyroid) imbalances.
  • Brain imaging (usually MRI) to look for other problems and sometimes help identify the type of dementia.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan of the brain.

Treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia is advancing with new medications, but none of the available medications cure the disease. It’s important to have realistic expectations about the potential benefits of medication therapy and work toward improving quality of life. Alzheimer’s dementia can be a life-changing condition that affects the entire family.

Build Healthy Habits

There’s much you can do now to help keep your brain healthy, including eating a healthy diet, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, exercising both the body and mind and staying socially active.

Reach out to a CHI Health provider for more information.

Anchalia Chandrakumaran, MD
Anchalia Chandrakumaran, MD

Anchalia Chandrakumaran, MD is an internal medicine provider at CHI Health.

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