What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
The National Institute on Aging defines Alzheimer’s as a form of dementia. This brain disease causes a slow decline in memory, thinking, and reasoning skills.
Brain Changes with Alzheimer’s
Our brains have over 100 billion nerve cells within them called neurons. These nerve cells have branch-like structures that connect at more than 100 trillion points. Electrical signals travel through the neurons passing messages and communicating with groups of nerve cells which make up regions of the brain responsible for things such as learning, memory, reasoning, and motor skills.
With Alzheimer’s disease, the signals between nerve cells becomes disrupted and can lead to nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. This can cause memory loss, difficulty learning new things, and difficulty with reasoning and problem-solving. Eventually, an individual will lose motor skills as the disease progresses and starts to affect those regions in the brain. The Alzheimer’s Association explains that as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, an individual’s brain will shrink dramatically, affecting nearly all its functionality.
Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or problem solving – for example, following a recipe or driving instructions
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Confusion with time or place (disoriented)
- Trouble with vision and spatial awareness
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgments
- Withdrawal from work or social activity
- Drastic changes in mood or personality
Prevalence in The United States
In 2022, it’s estimated that 6.5 million Americans age 65 or older are living with Alzheimer’s disease. 73% of those individuals are 75 or older, which means that 1 in 9 (10%) of our nation’s population over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease.
It is not widely studied, but researchers believe that 110 of every 100,000 people, about 200,000 Americans, have early onset Alzheimer’s disease. These are cases of Alzheimer’s where the individual is diagnosed with the condition before the age of 65, which on average is by 60-64.
These 2022 projections are taken from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP) in conjunction with ADAMs- The Aging, Demographics and Memory Study.
To learn more, you can read the Alzheimer’s Medical Professionals Journal.
Men versus Women
Alzheimer’s affects more women than men. At least two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. Of the 6.5 million Americans aged 65 or older with Alzheimer’s in the U.S., 4 million are women and 2.5 million are men.
Stages of Alzheimer’s
The Alzheimer’s Association categorizes the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in 3 stages.
Early Stages (Mild):
In the early stages, an individual will still have most of their faculties but may feel as though they’re having lapses in memory. Some common early difficulties include coming up with the right word or name, forgetting things that they just learned or read, or losing/misplacing valuable or everyday items frequently. They may also have trouble planning or following step-by-step instructions.
These difficulties are due to the area of the brain that is responsible for learning, memory, thinking, and planning being affected first. This is often when individuals first get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, due to the impact the symptoms have on the individual’s daily life. These changes are often noticed by friends or loved ones.
Middle Stage (Moderate):
The middle stage is typically the longest phase of Alzheimer’s. An individual may live for many years as their condition slowly worsens. Often this is the most challenging stage for individuals and their loved ones. During the middle stage, an individual will slowly lose their autonomy and will need to rely on others more and more as their condition worsens.
Individuals will start to forget personal details like their phone number, address, life events, or their personal history. It is not uncommon for the disease to cause moodiness and withdrawal from social situations, and following conversations starts to become more difficult.
This is also the stage where a tendency to wander off and become lost increases drastically. They can easily become confused as to where they are, what time or what day it is. As the conditions worsen, reasoning and judgment will become further impaired. Individuals may need assistance in choosing appropriate clothing for weather or occasions, managing their money, hygiene, and/or diet. Changes in sleep patterns can cause them to experience insomnia or sundowning, which is when they become increasingly restless and agitated from dusk to dawn.
If you spend time around someone in this stage of Alzheimer’s, you may notice drastic personality and behavioral shifts including suspiciousness, delusions/paranoia, hallucinations, or compulsive repetitive behavior. Individuals may accuse their loved ones of stealing, infidelity, or other inappropriate behaviors. The further the condition worsens, loved ones may need to consider in-home caregivers or an assisted living facility for around-the-clock care.
Late Stage (Severe):
In the final stage of the disease, individuals need extensive care. During this stage individuals will lose the ability to respond to their environments, carry on a conversation and eventually lose all control over movement. This includes walking, sitting, and eventually, swallowing. Individuals will remain in this phase until they pass.
What to expect after diagnosis:
Alzheimer’s was the 7th leading cause of death in 2020 and 2021. This is actually a decrease in prevalence, due to COVID entering the top 10 causes of death, ranking in at number 3. Alzheimer’s remains the 5th leading cause among individuals 65 and older.
On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives 4-8 years after diagnosis, but can live as long as 20 years depending on how old they are when first diagnosed and if they have other health conditions. New research and treatments may help slow the progression of the disease which can increase the odds of an individual living longer than the current average expectancy.
Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. There are, however, treatment options available that can help slow the progression of the disease or help manage associated symptoms. Working with a medical professional will best allow you to create a treatment plan that is right for you or your loved one.
What does the future of Alzheimer’s cases look like?
With the baby boomer generation turning 65 or older, the Milken Institute projects that within the next 20 years the number of people who will have Alzheimer’s dementia will reach over 13 million – pending any breakthroughs to prevent, slow, or cure Alzheimer’s disease.
While it is challenging to learn that a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there is hope. Research and treatment options regarding this disease continues to develop every day.
Some states do have a Silver Alerts program in case a senior wanders away from home. If your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia and you want to ensure their best possible safety, rely on the Q5id Guardian app. Q5id Guardian can provide peace of mind that if your loved one wanders off, there will be a community of Guardian volunteers ready at a moment’s notice to help bring your loved one home safely.
For further information on Alzheimer’s and dementia visit our partners The Dementia Society of America.
Their helpline is also available 24/7 for those who would like to talk to a staff member for more information and support regarding Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, learn about how you can help someone with Alzheimer’s.
Help raise awareness for Alzheimer’s by sharing this information on World Alzheimer’s Day recognized annually on September 21st.