Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease


Illustration of how Alzheimer's Disease spreads through the brain as the disease progresses.

Dementia, a loss of brain function, can occur with a variety of diseases. One of these includes Alzheimer's Disease which affects memory, thinking and behavior and gradually gets worse as the disease progresses.

It is believed you are more likely to get Alzheimer's disease if you are older, have a close blood relative with the disease, have a history of head trauma, chronic high blood pressure, or have a genetic predisposition. Women tend to be at higher risk.

There are two types of Alzheimer's disease. The first is called Early onset where symptoms become evident before the age of 60. There have been several genes that have been identified with Early onset and as expected this tends to run in families. The second and most common type is called Late onset occurring in people older than 60. In both types, genes and environmental factors seem to play a role.

There are some typical symptoms to watch for including language confusion, memory loss, difficulty with cognitive skills, or changes in emotions and behaviors. Many people have mild cognitive issues including forgetfulness due to aging. This does not always progress into Alzheimer's. Mild cognitive impairment can include problem solving difficulties, inability to multi-task, and forgetting words, conversations, or events. Alzheimer's presents more challenging issues such as misplacing things, personality changes, getting lost in familiar settings, mood changes, difficulty recalling the names of familiar objects, or finding it challenging to accomplish tasks that used to be easy. As the disease progresses the individual may experience hallucinations, violent behavior, forgetting current events, poor judgement, depression, wakefulness at night, confusion in communication or forgetting ones' life history. Once the disease is to a severe stage family members are not recognized, and it becomes very difficult to perform basic activities in daily life.

There are various tests used by the practitioner to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. The patient will complete a physical exam, take a medical history questionnaire including symptoms, and take a mental status exam. Other test may be run to rule out anemia, vitamin deficiency, stroke, depression, brain tumor, or thyroid disease. In reality, the only way to positively diagnose Alzheimer's disease is to assess a brain tissue sample after death, looking for neurofibrillary tangles, neuritic plaques, or senile plaques.

There are pharmaceutical approaches for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease which will not cure, but try to slow the progression of the disease and manage the symptoms. The benefit of these drugs is usually small. There are supplements that are believed to be helpful to prevent the onset or slow the progression including Folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin E.

Please refer to the following articles at the Foundation for Alternative and Integrative Medicine:

Following are links to off-site articles investigating various aspects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.