Overview: Symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including early-onset Alzheimer’s, include problems with memory, judgment, and thinking. Memory loss and dementia will progress as the stages of Alzheimer’s advance. Symptoms can be treated with medication, but there is no cure.
- The Alzheimer’s Foundation’s toll-free hotline provides information and counseling by licensed social workers and can refer you to community resources across the nation.
- The Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline is available to caregivers, families and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
- WebMD’s Alzheimer’s Disease Health Center has an overview of types of support services and counseling options for people affected by the disease.
- The National Institutes of Health has a guide that offers practical advice for caregiving at all stages, including how to cope with changes in personality and communication, making your home safe, where to get help, medical decisions, and coping with the last stages of the disease.
- The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Caregiver Support Line can provide assistance when caring for a veteran and connect you with a local Caregiver Support Coordinator.
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- If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
Alzheimer’s In-Depth: There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are medicines that may improve quality of living and delay some symptoms. Counseling and other therapies may also be recommended. Currently there are 4 drugs approved by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat the symptoms of the disease for some time, but they cannot stop the disease itself. Not every drug will be helpful for every person with dementia. Information about the 4 currently approved drugs — and about treatments that we know do NOT work — is found on these sites:
- NIH Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center has an overview of currently approved drugs, how they work and their potential side effects.
- The Alzheimer’s Association has resources on drug and non-drug treatments, and advancements in research.
As the disease progresses, a person with dementia may experience a variety of problems, like sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, anger, and depression. Drug and non-drug treatments are available to manage these symptoms. Treating behavioral symptoms often makes people with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and helps caregivers keep them safe.
- The NIH Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center has details on types of treatment, approved medications, and current research.
- The Alzheimer’s Association has information on behavioral changes, their symptoms, what triggers them, and ways to cope and treat these symptoms.
Alzheimer’s disease is complex, and it is unlikely that any one drug or other intervention can successfully treat it. Current approaches focus on helping people maintain mental function, manage behavioral symptoms, and slow or delay the symptoms of disease. Researchers hope to develop therapies targeting specific genetic, molecular, and cellular mechanisms so that the actual underlying cause of the disease can be stopped or prevented.
Maintaining Mental Function
Several medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Donepezil (Aricept®), rivastigmine (Exelon®), and galantamine (Razadyne®) are used to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer’s (donepezil can be used for severe Alzheimer’s as well). Memantine (Namenda®) is used to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s. These drugs work by regulating neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons. They may help maintain thinking, memory, and communication skills, and help with certain behavioral problems. However, these drugs don’t change the underlying disease process. They are effective for some but not all people, and may help only for a limited time.
Common behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s include sleeplessness, wandering, agitation, anxiety, and aggression. Scientists are learning why these symptoms occur and are studying new treatments—drug and non-drug—to manage them. Research has shown that treating behavioral symptoms can make people with Alzheimer’s more comfortable and makes things easier for caregivers.
Looking for New Treatments
Alzheimer’s disease research has developed to a point where scientists can look beyond treating symptoms to think about addressing underlying disease processes. In ongoing clinical trials, scientists are developing and testing several possible interventions, including immunization therapy, drug therapies, cognitive training, physical activity, and treatments used for cardiovascular and diabetes.
Support for Families and Caregivers
Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease can have high physical, emotional, and financial costs. The demands of day-to-day care, changes in family roles, and decisions about placement in a care facility can be difficult. There are several evidence-based approaches and programs that can help, and researchers are continuing to look for new and better ways to support caregivers.
Becoming well-informed about the disease is one important long-term strategy. Programs that teach families about the various stages of Alzheimer’s and about ways to deal with difficult behaviors and other caregiving challenges can help.
Good coping skills, a strong support network, and respite care are other ways that help caregivers handle the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. For example, staying physically active provides physical and emotional benefits.
Some caregivers have found that joining a support group is a critical lifeline. These support groups allow caregivers to find respite, express concerns, share experiences, get tips, and receive emotional comfort. Many organizations sponsor in-person and online support groups, including groups for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and their families.
Scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people. In people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a genetic mutation is usually the cause. Late-onset Alzheimer’s arises from a complex series of brain changes that occur over decades. The causes probably include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. The importance of any one of these factors in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s may differ from person to person.
The Basics of Alzheimer’s
Scientists are conducting studies to learn more about plaques, tangles, and other biological features of Alzheimer’s disease. Advances in brain imaging techniques allow researchers to see the development and spread of abnormal amyloid and tau proteins in the living brain, as well as changes in brain structure and function. Scientists are also exploring the very earliest steps in the disease process by studying changes in the brain and body fluids that can be detected years before Alzheimer’s symptoms appear. Findings from these studies will help in understanding the causes of Alzheimer’s and make diagnosis easier.
One of the great mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease is why it largely strikes older adults. Research on normal brain aging is shedding light on this question. For example, scientists are learning how age-related changes in the brain may harm neurons and contribute to Alzheimer’s damage. These age-related changes include atrophy (shrinking) of certain parts of the brain, inflammation, production of unstable molecules called free radicals, and mitochondrial dysfunction (a breakdown of energy production within a cell).
Most people with Alzheimer’s have the late-onset form of the disease, in which symptoms become apparent in their mid-60s. The apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene is involved in late-onset Alzheimer’s. This gene has several forms. One of them, APOE ε4, increases a person’s risk of developing the disease and is also associated with an earlier age of disease onset. However, carrying the APOE ε4 form of the gene does not mean that a person will definitely develop Alzheimer’s disease, and some people with no APOE ε4 may also develop the disease.
Also, scientists have identified a number of regions of interest in the genome (an organism’s complete set of DNA) that may increase a person’s risk for late-onset Alzheimer’s to varying degrees.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s occurs in people age 30 to 60 and represents less than 5 percent of all people with Alzheimer’s. Most cases are caused by an inherited change in one of three genes, resulting in a type known as early-onset familial Alzheimer’s disease, or FAD. For others, the disease appears to develop without any specific, known cause, much as it does for people with late-onset disease.
Most people with Down syndrome develop Alzheimer’s. This may be because people with Down syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21, which contains the gene that generates harmful amyloid.
For more about this area of research, see NIA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Fact Sheet.
Health, Environmental, and Lifestyle Factors
Research suggests that a host of factors beyond genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a great deal of interest, for example, in the relationship between cognitive decline and vascular conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Ongoing research will help us understand whether and how reducing risk factors for these conditions may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
A nutritious diet, physical activity, social engagement, and mentally stimulating pursuits have all been associated with helping people stay healthy as they age. These factors might also help reduce the riskof cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials are testing some of these possibilities.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease
Doctors use several methods and tools to help determine whether a person who is having memory problems has “possible Alzheimer’s dementia” (dementia may be due to another cause) or “probable Alzheimer’s dementia” (no other cause for dementia can be found).
To diagnose Alzheimer’s, doctors may:
- Ask the person and a family member or friend questions about overall health, past medical problems, ability to carry out daily activities, and changes in behavior and personality
- Conduct tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting, and language
- Carry out standard medical tests, such as blood and urine tests, to identify other possible causes of the problem
- Perform brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or positron emission tomography (PET), to rule out other possible causes for symptoms.
These tests may be repeated to give doctors information about how the person’s memory and other cognitive functions are changing over time.
Alzheimer’s disease can be definitely diagnosed only after death, by linking clinical measures with an examination of brain tissue in an autopsy.
People with memory and thinking concerns should talk to their doctor to find out whether their symptoms are due to Alzheimer’s or another cause, such as stroke, tumor, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disturbances, side effects of medication, an infection, or a non-Alzheimer’s dementia. Some of these conditions may be treatable and possibly reversible.
If the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s, beginning treatment early in the disease process may help preserve daily functioning for some time, even though the underlying disease process cannot be stopped or reversed. An early diagnosis also helps families plan for the future. They can take care of financial and legal matters, address potential safety issues, learn about living arrangements, and develop support networks.
In addition, an early diagnosis gives people greater opportunities to participate in clinical trials that are testing possible new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or other research studies.
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