Just because you forget things, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have Alzheimer's. Even when you fear the worst, the earlier you seek help, the better your chances of getting the care you need and maximizing your quality of life.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a serious brain disorder that impacts daily living through memory loss and cognitive changes. Although not all memory loss indicates Alzheimer’s disease, one in ten people over 65 years of age, and over half of those over 85 have Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, 26 million people worldwide have this dementia, and over 15 million Americans will be affected by the year 2050.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease usually develop slowly and gradually worsen over time, progressing from mild forgetfulness to widespread brain impairment. Chemical and structural changes in the brain slowly destroy the ability to create, remember, learn, reason, and relate to others. As critical cells die, drastic personality loss occurs and body systems fail.
What else can cause Alzheimer’s symptoms?Significant cognitive and memory loss are not symptoms of normal aging. However, these symptoms do not always indicate Alzheimer’s disease. Other conditions can also cause mental decline.
Symptoms that mimic early Alzheimer’s disease may result from:
- Central nervous system and other degenerative disorders, including head injuries, brain tumors, stroke, epilepsy, Pick’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease.
- Metabolic ailments, such as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, kidney or liver failure.
- Substance-induced conditions, such as drug interactions, medication side-effects, alcohol and drug abuse.
- Psychological factors, such as dementia syndrome, depression, emotional trauma, chronic stress, psychosis, chronic sleep deprivation, delirium.
- Infections, such as meningitis, encephalitis, and syphilis.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s diseaseSince there is no single definitive medical test for identifying Alzheimer’s disease, arriving at the correct diagnosis can take time and patience. Diagnosing Alzheimer's requires a detailed evaluation, including:
- A thorough history of symptoms from the patient and spouse or family, including past and present functioning. Determining classic patterns can help your doctor eliminate other causes of Alzheimer’s symptoms, and also distinguish Alzheimer’s from other forms of dementia.
- A physical and neurological exam, including cognitive tests to assess such things as orientation (ability to recall details about self, place, and time), attention span, speed of information processing, working memory, and mood and personality.
- Other tests, such as brain imaging and blood tests, to rule out other medical causes.
- Significant memory problems in immediate recall, short-term, or long-term memory.
- Significant thinking deficits in at least one of four areas: expressing or comprehending language; identifying familiar objects through the senses; poor coordination, gait, or muscle function; and the executive functions of planning, ordering, and making judgments.
- Decline severe enough to interfere with relationships and/or work performance.
- Symptoms that appear gradually and become steadily worse over time.
- Other causes to be ruled out to ensure memory and cognitive symptoms are not the result of another medical condition or disease, such as mild cognitive impairment.
How is Mild Cognitive Impairment different from Alzheimer’s?Recent research examining mild cognitive impairment (MCI) reveals biological changes identical to those seen in an Alzheimer’s brain. Considered by some to be an intermediate stage between normal aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, MCI is characterized by persistent forgetfulness, but lacks many of the more debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
MCI often precedes the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In other cases, patients plateau at a relatively milder stage of decline, and are able to live independently with little help from others. Understanding how these conditions progress to dramatically different outcomes continues to be a source of scrutiny and study.