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Alzheimer’s Diagnosis: How to find out if a loved one is affected?

By William J. Ray

Neurodegeneration Disorder is an umbrella term for a range of conditions which primarily affect the neurons in the human brain. Neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system which includes the brain and spinal cord. They normally don’t reproduce or replace themselves, so when they become damaged or die they cannot be replaced by the body. Examples of neurodegenerative diseases include Dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease.

Dementia is not a specific disease. It's an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. While development and symptoms of dementia can vary greatly, at least two of the following core mental functions must be significantly impaired to be considered dementia:

  • Memory
  • Communication and language
  • Ability to focus and pay attention
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Visual perception

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases

Research on Alzheimer's diseases shows that it is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer's, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer's live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.

Alzheimer Causes Symptoms & Treatments

Like all types of dementia, Alzheimer's is caused by brain cell death. It is a neurodegenerative disease, which means there is progressive brain cell death that happens over a course of time. The total brain size shrinks with Alzheimer's - the tissue has progressively fewer nerve cells and connections.

A few common symptoms of Alzheimer's are:

1. Progressive Memory Loss

This is the most well-known symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. For those suffering with the disease, it often starts with impairment in short-term memory.

2. Decline In Cognitive Abilities

In its early stages, signs of this deterioration in cognitive ability include losing track of time, becoming easily disoriented, or other signs of poor judgment and lack of insight.

3. Change In Mood Or Personality

Mood and personality changes include a person acting withdrawn, irritable, inexplicably hostile, apathetic, confused or anxious in their usual activities.

4. Speech Impairment

Speech is another part of the brain which is commonly affected even in early stages of Alzheimer’s. Signs of speech impairment include having difficulty finding words.

5. Behavioural Problems

A full cure and Alzheimer's disease treatment is still to be discovered, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues. Although current Alzheimer's treatments cannot stop Alzheimer's from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers. Today, there is a worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, and prevent it from developing. 

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic Neurodegenerative Disorder that affects 5.4 million Americans.  It is the most common cause of dementia among older people.  Alzheimer’s disease leads to a loss in memory and decline in mental faculties to an extent that the person is incapable of functioning normally. Early Symptoms of Alzheimer’s may be dismissed as signs of aging making it difficult to diagnose in the early stages. It is typical of Alzheimer’s that it sets in slowly and only worsens over time.

The most common risk factor for Alzheimer’s is aging. About 96% of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s are above the age of 65. This does not mean people below the age of 65 cannot be diagnosed. Alzheimer’s in people below the age of 65 is known as Early Onset Alzheimer’s, affecting approximately 200,000 Americans. It is a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that has no way to prevent, cure or even slow its progression. However, it is incurable but not untreatable. There has been an advancement in the Research on Alzheimer’s Disease. There are four FDA-approved medications available for treating Alzheimer’s symptoms and many other clinical trials. Therefore, an early detection is important in chalking out appropriate treatment, care and future plans.

If you observe symptoms of memory loss and Alzheimer’s dementia and are concerned, is advisable to get yourself or your loved one tested. While doctors can always determine whether a person is suffering from dementia, the causes of dementia could be varied. Experiencing memory loss does not mean you have Alzheimer’s disease. It could be caused by any of the other causes such as depression, drug interactions, thyroid problems, excess use of alcohol or certain vitamin deficiencies. Dementia brought about by these causes is treatable and reversible.

Steps to diagnose:

A reality is that Alzheimer’s disease cannot be diagnosed completely accurately until after death. A process of elimination is used by doctors which has about 90% accuracy.  It includes:

  • Assessment of the patient’s medical history- A person with a family history of Alzheimer’s or dementia has an increased chance of suffering from the disease. You will be asked if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s.  Doctors rule out other causes of dementia by ascertaining if the patient has any current illnesses, is taking any medications and so on.
  • Mental status exam- the doctor will test the patient’s ability to solve problems and their memory skills. Early symptoms include-
  •                 Loss of energy and spontaneity
  •                 Difficulty in:
  •                 Following instructions
  •                 Abstract thinking
  •                 Managing money
  •                 Finding the right words
  • A study of the problems exhibited may help a physician in distinguishing Alzheimer’s from another form of dementia.
  • Physical and Neurological exam- This will allow the physician to rule out other potential health problems that may cause dementia. This will include general x-rays, blood tests and urinalysis.  A blood test may detect Thyroid function or Vitamin B12 deficiency, both of which can cause dementia in older people. Brain scans may rule out other causes of dementia.

•             Tests- The doctor will recommend specific tests depending on symptoms and how far the dementia has advanced. Sophisticated brain imaging can help observe the slightest change in brain function to detect Alzheimer’s.

Once a person is diagnosed the next step is to find out an appropriate plan of action. There are initiatives led by doctors to advance Alzheimer’s disease treatment. The Neurodegenerative Consortium is one such multi-institution initiative established by MD Anderson Cancer Center to advance the research for Alzheimer’s disease Treatment. The initiative envisions a world where Alzheimer’s is no longer incurable. Its’ mission is to develop therapies that will slow, stop or reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s.

When a friend or family member is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, show them your support. It may be a scary road but there is help out there. There is an army of researchers and doctors dedicated to finding better treatments and cure for the disease. You can join an Alzheimer’s Association for friends and family members that will not only help you cope but also be a source of guidance. If you feel overwhelmed, do not hesitate to seek the advice of a professional. 

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MD Anderson Cancer Center, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Neurodegenerative Disorders, Neurodegenerative Disorders,

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