Florida Atlantic University
March 18, 2000
Alzheimers disease is a complex illness that affects the brain tissue directly and undergoes gradual memory and behavioral changes which makes it difficult to diagnose. It is known to be the most common form of dementia and is irreversible. Over four million older Americans have Alzheimers, and that number is expected to triple in the next twenty years as more people live into their eighties and nineties. (Johnson, 1989). There is still no cure for Alzheimers but throughout the past few years a lot of progress has been made.
Doctors need a sure way to diagnose the disease before treatment or studies can be done. The diagnosis is an autopsy of brain tissue examined under a microscope. In addition, medical history, a physical exam, and mental status tests are used for diagnosis (Posen, 1995). Often, tests are done to rule out other potential causes of the dementia. This allows the identification of other causes of thinking and behavioral changes to be made before concluding that the patient has Alzheimers or another form of dementia. The tests that are requested to be done include CT and MRI scans to rule out strokes or brain tumors which could account for change in memory and behavior; thyroid and psychological tests which can also detect thinking and behavior problems (Posen, 1995).
Alzheimers is a result from a combination of factors that cause progressive brain deterioration that affects the memory and behavior of an individual. There are two known risk factors. The first risk factor is age. Alzheimers usually affects people older than 60, and rarely affects those younger than 40. The average age
of diagnosis is about 80 years old (Johnson, 1989). The incidence is about the same for all races, but women are more likely than men to develop the disease, because they live longer. The second factor is heredity. Family history plays a role in about forty percent of people with early onset of Alzheimers (Johnson, 1989). If your parents or a sibling developed the disease, you are more likely to, as well. But there are cases of families with several people who have had this disease and other members are not affected. These two factors are the only proven factors, but environmental research is being done to help with a possible protective effect for the disease. As of now, more research is needed to confirm any benefit.
The causes of Alzheimers follows the same pattern as most other dementias. Neurons degenerate and lose their ability to communicate and die. Due to the inability of the brain to replace nerve cells, some brain function is lost. The key question in Alzheimers disease is, what causes the neuron degeneration (Johnson, 1989)? The focus for finding the cause is on abnormal structures found in the brain of people with Alzheimers. Unfortunately, the abnormal structures the brain undergoes still has researchers uncertain as to how they are involved in Alzheimers and exactly how the disease occurs.
Therefore, not knowing the exact causes of the disease, the signs and symptoms will help with the diagnosis. The first sign may be mild forgetfulness that progresses to affect language, reasoning, understanding, reading and
writing. There has been known cases of people with Alzheimers who become anxious, aggressive and wander away from home (Wallace, 1998). These individuals have a severe case of the disease and must be taken care of on a daily basis. Alzheimers progresses and affects individuals differently. Many signs are shown in the individual with the disease, which allows you to classify which stage the individual is in. Some of the signs to look for are, difficulty learning and retaining new information, reasoning and abstract thought, judgment and planning, poor language skills, inhibition and impulse control and short term memory loss (Wallace, 1998). If any or all of these signs occur, the individual most likely has Alzheimers.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimers but there are treatments for the disease to help with reducing or retarding the mental and behavioral processes. The first treatment is a drug called Tacrine,