November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month
In 1983, President Ronald Regan designated November as National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. Ironically, Regan was himself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s just over a decade later. At the time, fewer than two million people had been diagnosed with the disease.
Today an estimated 5 million people are living with Alzheimer's disease in the United States alone. Another 15 million people (often family members or friends), provide care for someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
Per the Center for Disease Control, the death rate attributed to Alzheimer's has risen dramatically in the last 15 years, increasing by over 55% between 1994 and 2014.
Alzheimer's is Not a Normal Part of Aging
The research behind the increased numbers may be twofold: an aging population combined with better diagnostic tools. Earlier diagnosis increases the number of reported cases in which Alzheimer’s is accurately recognized as the cause of death.
Although it is not a natural part of the aging process, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s does increase with age. (This disease does not usually begin to show symptoms until after the age of 65.)
Early Onset Alzheimer’s
While growing older increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, there is also an early-onset form of the disease. Early onset Alzheimer’s can strike people who are much younger, even those who are still in their 40’s or 50’s. Approximately 5% of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s begin to experience cognitive (mental) decline prior to the age of 65.
Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of Dementia
While we may not understand all the reasons behind the numbers, we do know Alzheimer’s accounts for as much as 60-80% of all dementia cases, making it the most common form of dementia. The National Alzheimer's Foundation estimates that by the year 2050, over 16 million Americans will have developed Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder in which certain kinds of brain cells begin to die, affecting the areas of the brain which are responsible for memory, language and thinking.
In the early stages, people with Alzheimer’s can often continue to live independently. As the disease progresses though, they begin to lose their ability to care for themselves. In later stages, they are usually not able to communicate. Alzheimer’s is a terminal illness because when the damage becomes severe enough, the body can no longer function. At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, although treatment can slow the progress of the disease.
How Fast Does Alzheimer’s Progress?
The speed at which Alzheimer’s progresses varies from person to person. Some people with Alzheimer’s may only live four to eight years after diagnosis. Others may live as much as two decades longer, depending on other factors such as their overall health and access to care.
The Neuron Forest
A healthy adult brain typically contains over 100 billion nerve cells. These specialized cells are known as neurons. Every neuron is connected to tens of thousands of other brain cells. Tight clusters of neurons form branches of the brain, often referred to as the neuron forest.
100 Trillion Points of Connection Within the Brain
This complex network creates an estimated 100 trillion points of connection between neurons. Electrical signals jumping from neuron to neuron, travel through the neuron forest, creating the basis for all human experience including: thoughts, moods, memories, and feelings.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alheimer’s is known to interfere with these signals in several ways, including how signals pass between neurons. The disease also affects the way that neurotransmitters (chemical substances released within the brain that enable the transmission of signals between neurons) work.
This is believed to be caused by abnormal processes in the brain which lead to a buildup of protein plaques between neurons. The plaques create physical barriers, blocking signals between neurons and decreasing their overall connectivity. Alzheimer’s also creates protein tangles within the neurons themselves, making it harder for them to function.
A healthy brain is a connected brain. As interactions between neurons continue to decline, isolated neurons start to wither and die, causing the brain to lose its ability to function.
What are the Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Although there is no universally agreed upon standard, Alzheimer’s Association recognizes seven distinct stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These correspond to a global deterioration scale used by many healthcare providers as a guide for estimating the stage of the disease.
In the pre-dementia stage, there is no impairment. Damage is accumulating, but the brain is still able to function without symptoms.
In stage II, there is evidence of very mild cognitive decline. This can be easily dismissed as absent mindedness, or simple age-related brain changes.
By stage III, the symptoms start to become more pronounced. Someone with stage III Alzheimer’s may begin to lose track of conversations or forget words. They may also lose some of their organizational or planning skills.
By stage IV, there is moderate cognitive decline which interferes with daily life. At this stage, people with Alzheimer’s have a noticeable decline in their short term memory. They may, for instance, forget their own life details, have trouble with simple math (even if they were good at it before), or not be able to handle their own finances, or manage other common tasks.
At stage V, dementia has begun. This stage can range from mild to moderate dementia. It typically an obvious decline in their ability to think, remember words, speak, solve problems, express ideas or feelings, and/or move. Those who have advance stage V Alzheimer’s may not understand what everyday object are, or they may stare into space for long periods of time
At stage VI, the dementia becomes more severe. People with Alzheimer’s at this stage may begin to wander and become lost easily. They may also have major personality and behavioral changes. A previously gentle, friendly person, for instance, may become withdrawn or even aggressive.
At stage VII, the person with Alzheimer’s is nearing death. They are often unable to respond to their environment. While they may be able to speak simple words or phrases, in the last stages, they are often bedridden, and may lose their ability to swallow.
Signs and Symptoms of Early Alzheimer’s
The early signs of Alzheimer’s disease may be very mild. It can include short-term memory loss such as not being able to remember recent events such as what someone ate for breakfast.
There may be a reduced concentration or comprehension, personality or behavioral changes, difficulty recognizing family, places, people or objects, and or a gradual loss of abilities related to daily life. If you are concerned that you or someone close to you has Alzheimer’s, you should talk to a qualified healthcare provider. While there is no cure, medications can help those with the disease stay healthier longer.
ASP Cares is a market leading specialty pharmacy focused on caring for people with rare conditions and disorders. If you or someone you care about, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, we can help.
Our highly trained pharmacists understand the complex medication needs of those living with Alzheimer’s disease.
ASP Cares. Big enough to serve. Small enough to care.
This content does not represent medical advice. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. It is not intended as a substitute for the advise of a qualified medical provider.