Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that many people have encountered by know very little about. In this article, we unpack everything you need to know, including causes and potential preventative measures.
Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible, destructive disease that robs people of their memory, social abilities, and ultimately, their life. And while many people have to contend with the disease, most people don’t have a full understand of it.
Let us help with that.
Alzheimer’s was first discovered in 1901 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. Dr. Alzheimer had been working with a patient named Auguste D., who had experienced sleep issues, memory loss, mood swings, and general confusion.
After her death, he found that her brain had developed a peculiar atrophy, which included tangles and plaque in her brain that was especially strange due to her age. While the deterioration of the brain may have been somewhat expected among older patients, August D. was a younger patient. Today Auguste D. would be diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, which affects about 10% of Alzheimer’s patients.
There are some alarming statistics regarding Alzheimer’s Disease that may not be commonly known. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death, and in some studies, it is coming up third.
In America, almost two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s are women. The cases are increasing, and by 2050 it is predicted that there will be triple the number of people suffering from the disease. Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s Disease, and it is currently affecting 44 million people worldwide.
Clearly, it’s a massive problem.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that causes a breakdown of memory and cognitive abilities. A gene known as APOE-e4, and other forms of the APOE gene, may be an indicator of future Alzheimer’s patients, although not all people with this gene will develop Alzheimer’s and not everyone with Alzheimer’s has this particular gene.
This disease usually attacks the hippocampus, which is the area responsible for forming memories, and is why Alzheimer’s patients will often experience short-term memory loss as an initial symptom.
In Alzheimer’s sufferers, a substance called beta-amyloid clumps into plaque that builds up between neurons, resulting in a deterioration of brain function. In addition, another substance known as “tau” creates “tangles” inside the neurons in the brain. Eventually, neurons are not able to communicate. They lose the ability to remember, make decisions, and function independently.
In addition to the plaque and tangles, there’s also research that indicates there is a problem with the way that the brain processes glucose in people with Alzheimer’s. The patients exhibited a break down in glycolysis, the process that breaks down glucose, which resulted in a more severe distribution of plaque and tangles.
There has been increased research into a link between a person’s cardiovascular system and their risk for Alzheimer’s. A healthy heart helps keep a brain healthy with good blood flow. People with a poor cardiovascular system are at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s.
What is Dementia?
Sometimes Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are used interchangeably, but this is not entirely accurate. The dementia definition is similar to Alzheimer’s disease -- a loss of cognitive functioning and behavioral abilities -- but dementia is not limited to Alzheimer patients. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, but other types of dementia include Vascular Dementia, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and Parkinson’s disease.
What Are The Stages of Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer’s is not a disease that overtakes the brain quickly. In fact, from the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s, it may take years before a person suffering from it will reach the final stages.
While there are multiple ways that people categorize Alzheimer’s disease, the most common is in seven stages.
Stage 1: No Impairment.
The initial stage of Alzheimer’s is usually not detected at all.
Stage 2: Very Mild Decline
The individual may experience instances of memory loss but it is difficult to distinguish between ordinary forgetfulness that may come with age.
Stage 3: Mild Decline
People who are associated with the individual with Alzheimer’s, like family or co-workers, may begin to notice that they have a difficult time with memory or concentration.
During this stage a person with Alzheimer’s may begin to forget the right words or names of things or people, have difficulty following even familiar routes of travel, or may struggle to pick up new skills or information.
Stage 4: Moderate Decline
Stage 4 is when it becomes much easier to diagnose a person with the disease. During this period a person with Alzheimer’s may begin to experience uncontrollable changes in mood, struggle to accomplish complex tasks like bill paying or cooking meals, and begin to forget personal information from their histories.
Stage 5: Moderately Severe Decline
During this stage, individuals with Alzheimer’s will exhibit large gaps in thinking and memory. They may begin to forget important information like their phone number or address. They may be confused about where they are, or what is happening in their lives, and they will most likely no longer be able to function without assistance.
They will still be able to do some tasks for themselves like getting dressed and using the bathroom, and they will still be able to recall significant details about themselves and the people that they are closest with.
Stage 6: Severe Decline
At this stage, the individual will need a great deal of assistance. At this point they may struggle to accomplish tasks appropriately like dressing or remembering to flush the toilet. They will also struggle to control bowel and bladder movements. They may experience feelings of suspicion or paranoia, and may feel alone. They may forget or confuse important people in their lives and their personality will probably be noticeably different.
Stage 7: Very Severe Decline
By the seventh stage of Alzheimer’s, a person will need full assistance to live. They will have severely limited speech, and will not be able to sit up, eat, or walking. Each of a person’s abilities will fade during this period and they may not be able to walk at all or may struggle to swallow. Eventually, if they live long enough for it to happen, their organs will begin to shut down followed by death.
Prevention of Alzheimer’s
Due to Alzheimer’s devastating results, many hours and funds are being spent on discovering a cure. At this time, scientists are not entirely sure what causes Alzheimer’s disease or how to stop it.
A standard curve has not been found, but there are some studies that suggest that the disease may be delayed, prevented, or even reversed. Below are some examples of studies that offer some hope for Alzheimer’s patients.
MIND Diet and General Diet Changes
One of the main areas of focus for preventing or slowing down the effects of Alzheimer’s is a change in diet. The MIND diet is an acronym standing for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, and some studies suggest that the MIND diet can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
The MIND diet is the introduction of 10 important foods, and the exemption of 5.
10 Foods to eat on the MIND diet:
- Berries at least twice a week
- Spinach and other green leafy greens at least six times a week
- Nuts five servings a week
- Fish at least once a week
- Poultry twice a week
- Wine - at least one glass a day
- Vegetables at least once a day
- Olive Oil as the main oil for cooking
- Whole Grains 3 servings daily
- Beans - at least four times a week
5 Foods to avoid:
- Red Meat no more than 3 servings a week
- Fast food/fried food less than once per week
- Cheese less than once a week
- Pastries and Sweets should be very limited
- Butter and Margarine - less than one tablespoon daily
While it is not entirely known why this diet may help, scientists have their theories. Keith Pierson writes, “...scientists who created the diet think it may work by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. Oxidative stress occurs when unstable molecules called free radicals accumulate in the body in large quantities. This often causes damage to cells. The brain is especially vulnerable to this type of damage.”
High consumption of fats (especially from red meat) can cause inflammation and can create an excess of free radicals in the body. These free radicals can cause damage to brain cells which is even more concerning for a person suffering from dementia.
Diets rich in vitamins C and E can help reverse the number of free radicals in the body, thereby helping to protect brain cells. In addition, consumption of vegetables, fruit, and fish rich with omega-3 are helpful with general memory and brain function.
Supplements that are associated with general brain health may also be beneficial. Some of these supplements may include additional omega-3’s, ginkgo biloba, coenzyme Q10, tumeric, and alpha lipoic acid.
There are other healthy lifestyle options that may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Due to the perceived link between a weak cardiovascular system and Alzheimer’s, exercise can be a helpful tool to promote a healthy brain. Scientists suggest a minimum of 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise three to four days a week for overall health.
Not smoking, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep are other suggestions that may reduce the risk. There is a small amount of evidence that also suggests that continuing to exercise the brain can be beneficial. Learning new skills, connecting with people, and practicing cognitive activity could help.
There was one small trial performed in 2014 at UCLA that used a comprehensive plan to treat Alzheimer’s patients. Of the 10 people in the study, there were 9 positive outcomes using this plan.
In this study, they likened typical Alzheimer’s treatment plans to using one very good method to fix one hole in a leaky house when there are 35 other holes. While the drugs prescribed may fix one problem associated with Alzheimer’s, there were 35 others that the drug could not compete with. Therefore the drug appeared to be ineffective.
In this comprehensive plan, they targeted issues with each particular patient. Treatment included things like exercising, dietary changes, increased sleep, meditation, supplements, and hormone replacement therapy.
Dr. Dale Bredesen who was responsible for the study, said, “...a broader-based therapeutic approach, rather than a single drug that aims at a single target, may be feasible and potentially more effective for the treatment of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s.”
However the scope of this study was very small, only including 10 participants. There is not enough research into this method to know if it would be effective en masse.
Alzheimer’s disease is a very sad and devastating disease. Scientists and researchers will continue to invest money, time, and energy to find a cure for this disease that affects millions.
One beneficial thing that all people can do is to raise awareness for this disease that could easily affect us or our loved ones. The more awareness of the disease, the more likely that we will come up with a cure.
The second thing people can do is to strive to live healthy lifestyles that will help lessen the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
The brain is a beautiful thing. We’d be wise to do all we can to protect it.