January is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a type of dementia that progresses quickly and is ultimately fatal. Advanced AD is characterized by an inability to perform activities of daily living such as eating and bathing, and a failure to recognize loved ones.
What Causes Alzheimer’s disease (AD)?
It is unclear exactly what causes AD. One theory is that AD develops as a consequence of the impact of various risk factors (see below) which overwhelm the brain’s ability to heal itself. This theory suggests, then, that there is no single cause for AD, but that AD is due to an additive effect of various risk factors, with aging as the biggest risk factor.
Toxins are created during normal chemical and biological processes in the body, and the rate at which these toxins can be removed decreases with aging. An accumulation of these toxins is known as oxidative stress and an important aspect of AD prevention and treatment involves the reduction of oxidative stress through measures such as increased anti-oxidant consumption (for example from fruits and vegetables). Many of the risk factors for AD are related to oxidative stress.
Evidence also suggests that some cases of AD can be attributed to a genetic mutation that can be passed down. Because of this discovery, researchers have been able to create animal models of Alzheimer’s that can be used to test drug treatments.
Risk factors for AD include:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Head trauma
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Chronic inflammatory diseases such as arthritis
- Lack of physical and mental exercise/stimulation
- Unhealthy diet
- Lower levels of formal education and socio-economic status
- Lack of social interaction
Alzheimer’s is in fact a disease state although the warning signs can be overlooked as a normal part of aging.
Some warning signs include:
- Family history (indicates a possible gene mutation)
- Onset of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a reduction in cognitive skills and memory that does not always lead to AD
- Progressive forgetfulness
- Inability to perform habitual tasks such as driving
- Inability to make rational decisions
Can AD be prevented?
There are some measures you can take to reduce your risk of AD such as:
- Doing puzzles such as crosswords, word-searches and Sudoku to keep the brain active
- Participating in regular aerobic activity (e.g. walking, dancing, swimming)
- Protecting your head from injury by using helmets in sporting activities
- Maintaining normal cholesterol and blood pressure levels
- Maintaining an active social life
- Consuming ‘brain foods’ high in antioxidants such as fruits, vegetables and fish
How is AD Diagnosed?
A diagnosis for AD requires the elimination of other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, depression and vitamin deficiency which can contribute to symptoms. When AD is suspected, tools such as memory and cognitive tests may be used to confirm a diagnosis. CT Scans and MRI tests may also be ordered to determine if brain shrinking has occurred (due to a loss of nerve cells associated with AD).
How is AD Treated?
Nerve cells send messages from one cell to another and from one area of the brain to another through an electro-chemical mechanism. In AD, nerve cells become ‘sick’ and are no longer able to send or receive messages. Some medications work by preserving the ability of ‘sick’ nerve cells to communicate with other nerve cells. These drugs however, may only effective for a short period of time.
If you would like more information about AD, please visit the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada.