September 21 is World Alzheimer’s Day — and a great time to learn more about the disease

Doctor meeting with older patients

Observed each year on September 21, World Alzheimer’s Day was introduced in 1994 in an effort to raise global awareness about the world’s most prevalent form of dementia — Alzheimer’s disease. Currently ranked as the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease affects an estimated 6.5 million Americans over age 65, and approximately one in three people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s dementia.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

A progressive disease that causes 60% to 70% of dementia cases worldwide, Alzheimer’s is typically seen in patients of advanced age, with its usual onset seen at age 65 or older. Symptoms usually begin with mild memory loss, such as forgetting recent events or recently learned information, but they typically worsen gradually over a number of years — often eventually leading patients to lose the ability to carry on conversations, complete everyday tasks or respond to their environments. Patients typically survive for four to eight years after diagnosis, but they can live as long as 20 years after disease onset.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

The cause of Alzheimer’s disease, which affects the parts of the brain that control memory, speech and thought, is unknown — but advanced age and a family history of the condition are considered risk factors. Scientists have observed changes in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients years (and even as long as a decade) before the disease’s symptoms begin to appear, and studies indicate that healthy lifestyle choices such as maintaining sufficient physical activity, avoiding smoking, eating a nutritious diet and limiting the consumption of alcohol can help reduce a person’s risk of getting Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by abnormal clumps (called amyloid plaques) and tangled fiber bundles (called tau tangles) in the brain, along with a loss of the neuron connections that help transmit messages between different regions of the brain and to muscles and organs elsewhere in the body. Most of the initial brain damage that Alzheimer’s causes is seen in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, two parts of the brain that are critical to the formation of memories. As the disease progresses and causes more neurons in the brain to stop functioning and eventually die, other parts of the brain begin to shrink, with the brains of final-stage Alzheimer’s patients often showing widespread damage and tissue shrinkage.

Is there a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?

There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but emerging medications have shown promise in slowing its progression. Further, drugs that can help temporarily stabilize or improve memory and thinking skills in some affected patients are available. Otherwise, treatment of Alzheimer’s is focused on helping patients maintain brain health, slowing the progression of symptoms, managing associated behavioral symptoms such as depression, mood swings, changes in sleeping habits and wandering, and supporting quality of life for patients and their caregivers.

Seeking TRUE Care for a neurological condition? Wilmington Health can help 

The specialists in the Wilmington Health Neurology Department can diagnose and treat a range of disorders of the central and peripheral nervous systems, which include the brain, spinal cord, and nerves in the body. Neurology services include testing and treatment for Alzheimer’s and memory loss, headaches or migraines, Parkinson’s disease, tremors, brain injuries, strokes, tumors, and related conditions, along with other conditions of the nervous system.

To schedule an appointment with a Wilmington Health provider, contact the Neurology Department today.

Contributor: Robert Nelson, PA-C, Neurology