Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month

June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. The dangerous affliction causes loss of memory and severe cognitive illness. Sadly, most people with Alzheimer’s aren’t aware of it. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, worldwide, 47 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In fact, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia . There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, although as our insights into the disease continue to develop, there are new treatments on the horizon.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease that causes problems with memory, thought process, and behavior. It is the leading cause of dementia, a general term for loss of memory and other cognitive abilities. Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. People with Alzheimer’s experience issues with memory, communicating, learning, thinking, and reasoning that are severe enough to impact work, social, and family life.

The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles).

These plaques and tangles in the brain are still considered some of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. Another feature is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Neurons transmit messages between different parts of the brain, and from the brain to muscles and organs in the body.

Early symptoms of the disease are often mistaken as a result of “getting old” or stress. However, the most common symptom in the early stages is remembering recent events. As the disease advances, symptoms can include confusion, irritability and aggression, mood swings, language troubles and long-term memory loss. Because AD is incurable and worsens with time, those affected must rely on caregivers for assistance. That role is usually taken by the spouse or close relative.

Scientists continue to unravel the complex brain changes involved in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. It seems likely that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before memory and other cognitive problems become evident. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the number of people with it will increase significantly if current population trends continue.

Alzheimer’s is a slow disease that progresses in three stages — an early, preclinical stage with no symptoms, a middle stage of mild cognitive impairment, and a final stage of Alzheimer’s dementia. Alzheimer’s is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for AD. However, certain treatments like behavioral therapy and medication can help ease symptoms of the disease. Some medications may help to ease symptoms of confusion and memory loss. These include cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine, which are sometimes used together.