What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

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With the improvement of medicine and technology, the life expectancy of most people is increasing. While that is an incredible feat of human progress, age is one of the primary risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease, though researchers believe that the disease may develop from a number of factors. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of Dementia, is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Symptoms include memory loss, decline in executive functions such as problem solving and judgement, navigation problems, language difficulties, and social withdrawal.

Alzheimer’s disease is progressive, meaning that symptoms grow more severe and cognitive function declines over time. The majority of Alzheimer’s cases occur in individuals over the age of 65. Rarely, the disease does present in people younger than 65, known as early-onset Alzheimer’s. There are 3 stages to the progression of the disease: early, middle, and late. As the disease worsens, it may become difficult for someone to carry out the simplest tasks, such as walking or swallowing. The rate of progression is different for everyone, so in some cases, the stages may intersect. As research has advanced, diagnostic methods have improved, leading to earlier diagnosis and methods to improve quality of life.

Currently, there are still no known causes of the disease and medications to prevent, slow, or cure Alzheimer’s have not been successful. Researchers have proposed several potential contributing factors to the development of the disease, including genetic risk factors, family history, head injuries, and heart health. A family history of the disease is not a guarantee that someone will develop Alzheimer’s but could make someone more likely to develop it.

The brain has billions of neurons with many different functions, and it is hypothesized that Alzheimer’s prevents cells from functioning properly, leading to cell death and permanent damage to the brain. One of the potential causes of the damage to neurons is amyloid plaque buildup in the spaces between the neurons. Another potential cause is the buildup of twisted fibers of the tau protein, called tangles. Plaques and tangles develop in many people as they get older, but in individuals with Alzheimer’s, many more plaques and tangles are developed in areas of the brain that are critical to memory. Treatments Alzheimer’s disease can be evaluated by looking at whether the buildup of plaques is being decreased or removed.

Alzheimer’s disease is a highly complex neurodegenerative disease. Although there is no known cure, many preventative measures can be taken to slow cognitive decline such as mental and physical exercise and a well-balanced diet. Anything that is good for the body is good for the brain, and healthy habits can help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s by building more synapses in the brain, improving vascular health, and keeping the parts of the brain involved in memory strong and healthy. Hopefully, with more research, we can target earlier detection of the disease to better treat the patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.