Alzheimer’s disease (AD), is one form of dementia that gradually gets worse over time. It affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Memory impairment, as well as problems with language, decision-making ability, judgment, and personality, are necessary features for the diagnosis. The cause of AD is not entirely known, but is thought to include both genetic and environmental factors. A diagnosis of AD is made when certain symptoms are present, and by making sure other causes of dementia are not present.
When nerve cells (neurons) are destroyed, there is a decrease in the chemicals that help nerve cells send messages to one another (called neurotransmitters). As a result, areas of the brain that normally work together become disconnected. The buildup of aluminum, lead, mercury, and other substances in the brain is no longer believed to be a cause of AD. Doctors have several methods and tools to help them determine fairly accurately whether a person with memory problems has “possible Alzheimer’s disease,” “probable Alzheimer’s disease,” or some other problem. “Possible Alzheimer’s disease” means the symptoms may be from another cause. “Probable Alzheimer’s disease”
means no other cause for the symptoms can be found. A definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can be made only through autopsy after death.
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.
For many people, detecting the first signs of memory problems in themselves or a loved one brings an immediate fear of Alzheimer’s disease. However, most people over 65 experience some level of forgetfulness. It is normal for age-related brain shrinkage to produce changes in processing speed, attention, and short term memory, creating so-called “senior moments.” Forgetfulness is merely inconvenient, though, and generally involves unimportant information. Understanding the significance of these age-related changes begins with knowing the difference between what is normal and what is an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.
Symptoms that mimic early Alzheimer’s disease may result from several ailments afflicting the central nervous system and the metabolic system. Central nervous system and other degenerative disorders, including Pick’s Disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease often mimic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Metabolic ailments, such as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, kidney or liver failure also do the same. Substance-induced conditions, including adverse drug interactions, medication
side-effects, and alcohol or drug abuse may lead physicians to believe that a person is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Lastly, psychological factors, such as dementia syndrome, depression, emotional trauma, chronic stress,
psychosis, chronic sleep deprivation and delirium may have a key role in misleading medical professionals who suspect Alzheimer’s as the culprit.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is an enormous adjustment for both you and your loved ones. For many, the secrets to navigating this journey are learning, supporting, and loving. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatments available for the symptoms. These treatments cannot prevent Alzheimer’s from progressing but if symptoms are diagnosed early enough, they can be effective in delaying the onset of more debilitating symptoms. Early diagnosis can prolong independence and is the first step towards treatment, management, and living life fully.