Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions. It’s the most common cause of dementia — a group of brain disorders that results in the loss of intellectual and social skills.
Over time, Alzheimer’s disease leads to significant brain shrinkage, resulting from two types of abnormalities that are hallmarks of the disease: plaques and tangles.
Plaques are clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid that can damage and destroy brain cells in several ways, including interfering with cell-to-cell communication.
Tangles refer to abnormal twisting of protein threads (called tau) that interfere with the transport of brain nutrients and other essential materials.
WHAT’S THE CAUSE?
Alzheimer’s disease stems from a combination of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors that affect the brain over a period of time. Less commonly, it results from specific genetic changes that virtually guarantee a person will develop the disease.
- Age: Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Your risk increases greatly after you reach age 65.
- Family history and genes: Risk is higher if parent or sibling has the disease.
- Sex: Women are more likely than men to develop Alzheimer’s disease, in part because they live longer.
- Early memory problems. People with memory problems or other signs of cognitive decline worse than what might be expected for their age have increased risk.
- Past head trauma: People who’ve had a severe or repeated head trauma appear to have a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Lifestyle. Some evidence suggests the same factors that put you at risk of heart diseases — such as lack of exercise, tobacco use, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
- Memory difficulties
- Speaking and writing difficulties
- Troubles thinking and reasoning
- Troubles performing familiar tasks
- Personality and behavior changes (mood swings, social withdrawal, irritability, anxiety, distrust in others)
WHAT TESTS TO EXPECT
To help distinguish Alzheimer’s disease from other causes of memory loss, or dementia doctors typically rely on the following types of tests.
- Physical and neurological exams
- Blood tests help rule out other potential causes of memory loss and confusion.
- Mental status testing to assess your memory and other cognitive skills.
- Brain imaging
LIFESTYLE HABITS FOR PREVENTION
Studies show an association between lifelong involvement in mentally and socially stimulating activities and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Higher levels of formal education
- Mentally challenging leisure activities, such as reading or playing an instrument
- Frequent social interactions
Excerpt From: The Mayo Clinic. “Mayo Clinic A to Z Health Guide”.