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What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Oct 28, 2021

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disorder that causes loss of memory and cognitive decline. It is the most common form of dementia. Around 460,000 Australians have dementia, with Alzheimer's disease accounting for 70% of all cases as of 2020, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Find out what causes this condition, its symptoms and how it can be treated.

The True Nature of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative and terminal illness. This type of dementia affects the brain by destroying neurons and neural connections, leading to a steady cognitive decline as well as physical deterioration. The early symptoms are often mistakenly attributed to ageing or other, less debilitating diseases. A healthy human brain is divided into separate regions that have specific functions, such as speech, emotions and motor skills, supported by healthy neurons. The brains of people with Alzheimer's disease don't work like this.

The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first characterized it in 1907 when he discovered after careful examination that the outer layer of the brain of a person with Alzheimer's shrinks. At the time, he was working at Frankfurt University with a patient known as Auguste Deter, who was described by one of his assistants as "the woman who remembers everything". Her symptoms began appearing in 1901 and worsened until her death in 1906 — four years before Dr. Alzheimer would describe her condition to the scientific community for the first time. 

As the disease progresses, loss of mental function becomes pronounced along with disorientation, mood swings, loss of language skills, impaired judgement and reasoning ability and dramatic personality changes. It is important to be aware that Alzheimer's disease is not part of the normal ageing process and patients do not lose their mental abilities overnight.

Stages of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease gradually destroys a person's memory and ability to learn, communicate and to care for him or herself. Its symptoms progress and change over time. Early-stage Alzheimer's causes mild but noticeable changes in behaviour and cognitive functions such as the following:

  • Short-term memory issues
  • Misplacing items and struggling to remember verbal instructions
  • Trouble completing familiar tasks at home, work or play
  • Forgetting how to use everyday objects such as a toothbrush or comb
  • Getting stuck in familiar places such as the car or front porch

In the late-stage Alzheimer's disease, the patient has progressed to the point where they will have little or no recognition of close friends and family. Additionally, they may:

  • Suffer long-term memory loss
  • Lose basic reasoning abilities and problem solving skills
  • Be unable to speak or take care of their own needs
  • Suffer major personality changes
  • Frequently wander away from home

What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors that may reflect defective protein processing in the brain cells, leading to neuronal death. In Alzheimer's disease, neurons in the brain begin to die, causing a steady decline in memory and mental function.

Alzheimer's disease progresses through four stages: preclinical, early clinical, middle clinical and late clinical. The condition affects your ability to think clearly, communicate, manage daily activities or do simple tasks like brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Alzheimer's symptoms usually begin slowly and gradually get worse over the course of several years.

Who is at Risk of Alzheimer's Disease?

While Alzheimer's affects more women than men, the chances of acquiring it increases with age. People with a genetic risk factor are also more likely to develop the disease, which means a family history of Alzheimer's increases an individual's risk.

White matter lesions on brain imaging may indicate Alzheimer's pathology if they are accompanied by memory impairment. The prevalence of Alzheimer's doubles with each five-year increase in age, making it less common in young people and more common in older adults. As a person reaches the age of 65, they are at greater risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease causes progressive mental deterioration, and its symptoms vary from person to person. The disease slowly destroys memory and thinking skills leaving one incapable of independent thought or action. Spotting its symptoms are just as challenging as living with them, as these vary according to the stage of the disease. The most common symptoms of Alzheimer's include:

  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Inability to carry out everyday tasks
  • Difficulty in problem-solving or making decisions
  • Red and blue spots on the skin
  • Bladder problems
  • Loss of interest in usual daily activities
  • Less social activities

Severe symptoms include:

  • Forgetting words
  • Speaking in nonsensical sentences
  • Not being able to follow conversations
  • Impaired judgment and reasoning skills
  • Making poor decisions such as wandering away from home
  • Trouble with abstract thinking
  • Difficulty understanding and relating to concepts such as love and loss

Treatment Options for Alzheimer's Disease

There is no cure for Alzheimer's yet. However, symptoms can be treated and managed in a variety of ways. Medications and some surgical procedures are common interventions that are used to address this condition. Alzheimer's treatment clinical trials are currently testing new Alzheimer's disease medications. Scientists are also performing postmortem analysis of brain tissue to decipher new pathologies of Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's cannot be prevented, but symptoms can be managed for a few years in some cases. Current prevention strategies include:

  • Educational outreach programs designed to raise public awareness about Alzheimer's
  • Studying the possible causes and risk factors associated with the condition, including genetics, diet, physical exercise, lifestyle factors, mental health and more
  • Alzheimer's therapies, such as meditation, yoga, qigong and tai chi, can stop its progressive damage and prevent further symptoms

Alzheimer's patients typically live 8 to 10 years after diagnosis, but can survive as long as 20 years or more; some sufferers live more than 40 years with the disease. A few Alzheimer's patients have survived as long as 10 years without substantial assistance from others (although this is rare).

Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease

The diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease requires excluding other conditions first. There are no specific diagnostic tools that can distinguish between Alzheimer's disease and something else. A comprehensive examination of people with dementia is necessary to identify which type of dementia they have. A diagnostic procedure for Alzheimer's disease will typically involve:

  • Taking the patient's medical history
  • Performing a neurological examination to rule out other neurodegenerative disorders
  • Testing of the brain function
  • Examination of cerebral spinal fluid tests
  • Medical imaging techniques like MRI and PET to assess the structure of the brain and cell receptors like the amyloid precursor protein

Other health conditions that exhibit similar symptoms will be ruled out by these tests. Once the doctor has come up with a clinical diagnosis based on the signs of dementia manifested by the patient, only then can both doctor and patient begin finding a treatment strategy that works.  

Alzheimer's disease, though incurable at this time, can be made more manageable with the right treatment approach recommended by qualified health professionals. To help improve the quality of life for your loved one suffering from this condition, you can get in touch with a natural health practitioner to find out what natural therapies can be used in conjunction with conventional Alzheimer's treatments.

FAQs About Alzheimer's Disease

How do Alzheimer patients feel?

In addition to difficulty concentrating, people with Alzheimer's disease experience mood swings, irritability, fear and anger due to their deteriorated cognitive abilities.

What kills you with Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's is a dangerous condition as it affects the brain, which is the control system of every part of the body. Organ failure will eventually result from progressive damage to the brain. During the later stages of Alzheimer's, the person loses their ability to communicate, react to their environment, and control their own mind and body.

Has anyone ever recovered from Alzheimer's?

No. It is a progressive disease that ends in death. That is why scientists are working tirelessly to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Doctors can only relieve symptoms at the moment, but not permanently eliminate them.

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