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What you need to know about Alzheimer's disease

Posted June 21, 2021 by Natalie Kayani, M.D.

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Every 65 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Sadly, it is the country’s sixth leading cause of death.

Although the risk of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, it is not a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that involves the progressive deterioration, or death of cells (called neurons), in the brain and central nervous system. The death and malfunction of the neurons affect their ability to communicate with each other and, in turn, much of the body’s function, from balance and movement to memory and intelligence to breathing and heart function.

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, treatment is available to help slow its progression, reduce symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life.

Summa Health discusses risk factors, signs and symptoms, and treatments available in the hopes that a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease can better help those affected by it — both patients and caregivers.

Risk factors for Alzheimer’s

Age is the main risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. After age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. After age 85, the risk reaches nearly one-third, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Another strong risk factor is family history. If someone has a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s, they’re at an increased risk of developing the disease. Two or more immediate family members with it and their risk increases even more.

Other risk factors for Alzheimer’s include:

  • Heart disease, such as high blood pressure
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Inactive lifestyle and poor diet
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic or severe depression that develops at an older age, social isolation
  • Smoking and alcoholism
  • Alzheimer’s symptoms

    Memory loss is the key symptom of Alzheimer's disease. However, there are three main phases of Alzheimer’s: mild, moderate and severe, and each stage has its own set of symptoms.

    Problems with memory, thinking and other cognitive behaviors usually develop slowly and get worse over time. An early sign of the disease is usually difficulty remembering recent events or conversations. As the disease progresses, memory impairments worsen and other symptoms develop, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.

    Typical early signs to watch for, include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts life
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • People with memory loss or other signs of Alzheimer’s will probably find it difficult to recognize they have a problem. Normally, the signs are more obvious to loved ones.

    Diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s disease

    A medical diagnosis can take time because there is no definitive test to diagnose mental decline. A doctor will ask about family medical history and look for signs of cognitive impairment.

    If signs of mental decline are apparent, the doctor will first rule out any other reasons for it, such as infection, emotional disorders or certain medications. Then, the provider may perform a mental status exam to get a baseline to track memory loss over time.

    >While current treatments for Alzheimer’s cannot stop the disease from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve a patient’s quality of life. 

    There are several medications available to temporarily improve symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including memory loss and confusion, by affecting certain chemicals involved in carrying messages among the brain’s nerve cells. In addition, antidepressants or antianxiety medications may be prescribed to manage symptoms. These drugs can help people with Alzheimer’s maximize function and maintain independence for a time.

    There are non-drug options, as well. Coping strategies for behavioral and sleep changes can improve a patient’s well-being. In addition, establishing and strengthening routine habits and minimizing memory-demanding tasks can make life much easier for someone with Alzheimer’s.

    How Summa Health can help

    Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, research continues to better understand and treat the disease.

    If you think a loved one is experiencing mental decline, it’s imperative that you consult with a doctor right away. Each person’s journey with Alzheimer’s is different, and a provider can help you understand your options, treat symptoms, and connect you with services and support.

    For more information on Alzheimer’s disease or to schedule an assessment, contact Summa Health’s Senior Health Center at 330.375.4100.

    If you’re a caregiver, we understand the difficulties involved. There are programs at Summa Health designed to offer support and provide information.


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    If your situation is an emergency, call 911.