Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What is Alzheimer's?

In 1901, Aloi Alzheimer, a German physician, had a patient brought to him with symptoms he'd never seen before. Fifty-one year old Frau Auguste D. was having problems with her memory, a hard time speaking and understanding what others were saying to her, as well as suspicions her husband was cheating on her. Following her death in the spring of 1906, Dr. Alzheimer asked the family's permission to do an autopsy. This is what he found in Auguste’s brain, "he saw dramatic shrinkage, especially of the cortex, the outer layer involved in memory, thinking, judgment and speech. Under the microscope, he also saw widespread fatty deposits in small blood vessels, dead and dying brain cells, and abnormal deposits in and around cells."

The following November, Dr. Alzheimer brought this case to a scientific meeting. "In 1910, Emil Kraepelin, a psychiatrist noted for his work in naming and classifying brain disorders, proposed that the disease be named after Alzheimer."

From the introduction of What is Alzheimer's?:

  • Is a progressive and fatal brain disease. As many as 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer's destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time, and it is fatal. Today it is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. For more information, see Warning Signs and Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.

  • Is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 50 to 70 percent of dementia cases. Other types of dementia include vascular dementia, mixed dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia. For more information about other causes of dementia, please see Related Dementias.

  • Has no current cure. But treatments for symptoms, combined with the right services and support, can make life better for the millions of Americans living with Alzheimer’s. There is an accelerating worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, or prevent it from developing. Learn more about recent progress in Alzheimer research funded by the Alzheimer’s Association in the Research section.
Currently no one knows what causes Alzheimer's to start but it is known that it begins in the section of the brain for recent memory then spreads. The disease destroys brain cells and starts anywhere from ten to twenty years before any symptoms are visible. Unfortunately the number of those affected by Alzheimer's will only increase as more and more people are living longer lives. How long they will live depends on when they were diagnosed, the sex of the person, and if there are any other health problems- anywhere from three to more than ten years.

Here is a more in-depth description of how Alzheimer's works-

From the National Aging Institute Alzheimer's Disease Fact Sheet:

Tangles begin to develop deep in the brain, in an area called the entorhinal cortex, and plaques form in other areas. As more and more plaques and tangles form in particular brain areas, healthy neurons begin to work less efficiently. Then, they lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die. This damaging process spreads to a nearby structure, called the hippocampus, which is essential in forming memories. As the death of neurons increases, affected brain regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of AD, damage is widespread and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

The very early signs of Alzheimer's can mostly only be seen in brain scans. Reading the mild signs of Alzheimer's was scary because it sounds like how I am now at 36. My mom just told me that it's because I have four busy kids. I hope she's right! My biological maternal grandmother has it, her mom had it, and This is about the stage my grandma was in when we first noticed something wasn't right.

Mild AD

As AD progresses, memory loss continues and changes in other cognitive abilities appear. Problems can include getting lost, trouble handling money and paying bills, repeating questions, taking longer to complete normal daily tasks, poor judgment, and mood and personality changes. People often are first diagnosed in this stage.

The next stage is:

Moderate AD

In this stage, damage occurs in areas of the brain that control language, reasoning, sensory processing, and conscious thought. Memory loss and confusion increase, and people begin to have problems recognizing family and friends. They may be unable to learn new things, carry out tasks that involve multiple steps (such as getting dressed), or cope with new situations. They may have hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia, and may behave impulsively.

This may sound odd but I feel grateful that this is the last stage my grandma went through. The Saturday before she died my mom took her out to lunch and they had a good time. Grandma couldn't remember much from one minute to the next and according to my mom, seemed frustrated by that. A few days later she was rushed to the hospital where she died from bowel blockage. She hadn't gone to the bathroom for a while but told the doctor that she had. She didn't know who anyone was or where she was. Of course she didn't know if she'd gone to the bathroom recently. However, this prevented her from reaching the last stage which in my opinion was a good thing.

Severe AD

By the final stage, plaques and tangles have spread throughout the brain and brain tissue has shrunk significantly. People with severe AD cannot communicate and are completely dependent on others for their care. Near the end, the person may be in bed most or all of the time as the body shuts down.

I hope that you have learned a little more about Alzheimer's and have a better understanding of this devastating disease. I know that I learned a lot.

Please visit my other posts on this subject:

Alzheimer's stole my grandma

Azheimer's stole my Nanny

If I develop Azheimer's- A letter to my family

Sites I used in this post:

What is Alzheimer's?

National Institute on Aging

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