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Symptoms, causes, and treatment for alzheimer's disease

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SIU Medicine is continually researching ways to reduce the impact of Alzheimer’s Disease - a common neurodegenerative condition. Our clinicians and researchers are committed to contributing to the latest innovations and major breakthroughs in Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, prevention and treatment.

Raising awareness is the first step in contributing to the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s. Check out these five key facts to learn and share with your loved ones.

5 facts to know about alzheimer's disease

  1. Alzheimer's disease is common
    Research indicates that 5.8 million people are living with Alzheimer's in the U.S. This includes an estimated 1 in 10 people over the age of 65, and about 200,000 people under the age of 65 are living with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

    Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. However, with the right treatment, people living with this disease can live longer and with a greater quality of life. 
  2. Alzheimer's disease is caused by progressive neurodegenerative changes
    Alzheimer's disease is associated with degenerative changes—which means irreversible deterioration and loss of function—in the brain, especially in the hippocampus (a region involved in memory). Brain cells begin to degrade and die, and an abnormal build-up of proteins called amyloid plaque and tau develop. These changes in the brain can go on for years before signs and symptoms show up, which is why early screening is so essential, especially if you have a family history.

    Diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease depends on a person's family and medical history, assessment of a person's symptoms, and tests and measures (including cognitive tests, imaging studies of the brain, and blood or urine samples to rule out other disorders).
  3. Alzheimer's disease primarily involves cognitive symptoms 
    Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease vary from person to person and can range from mild to severe. Usually, the most severe symptoms—which include not recognizing loved ones and being unable to care for one's self—occur in the later stages of the disease.

    Common signs and symptoms include:
  • The first symptom is typically forgetfulness (getting lost, repeatedly misplacing items like keys, forgetting familiar names and phone numbers, missing appointments).
  • Reading and word-finding difficulties
  • Difficulties cooking, driving, and managing finances and medications
  • Difficulties in making decisions
  • Inability to recognize familiar people
  • Personality, mood, and behavior changes
  1. Alzheimer's treatment involves a multidisciplinary approach
    The main objective in treating Alzheimer's disease at SIU Medicine is to control or slow disease progression, manage symptoms, and optimize each patient's quality of life. But because no two people living with Alzheimer's disease are the exact same, optimal treatment requires an individualized approach that considers each patient's disease stage, overall health status, family history, and personal and caregiver goals.

    Some of the most common treatments for Alzheimer's disease include:
  • Medications that can enhance mental function
  • Adjustment or discontinuation of existing medications, if appropriate, to reduce or eliminate side effects that may be causing memory loss and confusion
  • Medications to help manage the possible complications of Alzheimer's disease, such as anxiety, agitation, and depression.
  • Social and family support and education
  • In some cases, physical therapy and occupational therapy to address related physical impairments including gait, poor balance, weakness, and problems with self-care activities
  1. It may be possible to prevent alzheimer's disease
    More research is critical to prevent Alzheimer's disease. In fact, this type of preventive research is one of the many areas that our team at SIU Medicine's Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders is investing so many resources. 

    Some promising data point to lifestyle factors that may reduce your risk of developing the disease. These include (but aren't limited to):
  • Getting enough sleep: on average, you need 8 hours of quality uninterrupted sleep per night
  • Getting enough exercise: adults should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise most days of the week 
  • Social and mental activity are also thought to be beneficial and are being actively researched.
  • Optimizing your diet: avoid pro-inflammatory substances like sugar and processed foods and maintain a diet rich in plants, healthy fats, and lean protein (recent research is also investigating more nuanced approaches for Alzheimer's disease and prevention, such as diets similar to the Mediterranean diet)
  • Reduce your risk of head trauma by wearing your seat belt. For younger patients active in sports, wearing a helmet, especially in higher-risk sports like football, hockey, and soccer can be helpful.     

Even with an optimal lifestyle, it may not be possible to completely eliminate your risk of Alzheimer's disease, especially if you have a family history or genetic predisposition. But doing what you can to invest in your health early in life can make a big difference. 

Is your loved one living with Alzheimer's Disease? 

Have you been touched by Alzheimer's disease? Contact SIU Medicine at 217-545-8000 to discover how we can help. 

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