All About Alzheimer’s Disease: Symptoms and Causes

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What was I saying? Where are my keys? What’s your name again?  Did what I just said make any sense?

Most of us have said or thought these phrases at some point, and in almost all cases, it wasn’t anything more than a momentary memory lapse or distracted moment.

But frequent bouts of absent-mindedness and confusion can also be some of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s easy to dismiss the symptoms at first or explain them away as part of normal aging. However, if these symptoms become more frequent and severe—like when basic tasks (such as paying bills or driving home from work) suddenly become difficult or you forget a close friend’s name and it doesn’t come to you later—they can be warning signs of the early stages of the disease.

While the disease’s progression doesn’t follow a predictable pattern, over time, memory lapses and forgetfulness will get worse. People with Alzheimer’s often wander off, forgetting how they got from point A to B, and they may experience depression or mood swings. At its worst, Alzheimer’s will impair people to the point that they forget almost everything, like how to hold a fork, tell time, or even how to walk.

Early signs of Alzheimer’s

Occasional memory slips or struggling to think of the right word shouldn’t be cause for alarm. But if these symptoms occur more frequently, it’s worth talking to your doctor:

  • Memory lapses, such as forgetting appointments or recently learned names
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Misplacing things
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Inability to manage a budget
  • Struggling to maintain a normal conversation
  • Showing signs of poor judgment
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Mood changes, such as feeling more anxious or fearful than usual

What causes Alzheimer’s?

While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, scientists believe Alzheimer’s arises due to changes in the brain that kill off brain cells. These changes may be the result of a combination of genetics, lifestyle factors, and chronic diseases and conditions (like if you have heart disease, obesity, or diabetes).

When researchers have looked at the brains of Alzheimer’s patients they’ve noticed two key traits: plaques (made up of a type of protein called beta-amyloid) that form in the brain and can damage and kill brain cells, and protein tangles within the brain that make it hard for the brain’s internal communication system to operate properly, which can also cause cells to shrivel up and die. As the disease progresses, widespread cell death can actually cause the brain to shrink.

Why do these tangles and plaques form? It’s hard to say, but researchers do know that your age plays a role. After age 65, people are much more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s. The National Institutes of Health estimates that about a third of people age 85 and older may have the condition.

Genetics matter, too, but to a lesser degree. In a relatively small number of cases, scientists have been able to isolate genes that put people at greater risk for developing the condition.

Still, much about Alzheimer’s remains a mystery to patients and clinicians. But doctors remain committed to finding new ways to treat it and there are opportunities for patients to take part in clinical trials as new drugs and therapies become available.

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