By Reginald J. Eadie, MD
Dr. Eadie, I recently visited my 78 year-old aunt and was troubled by her behavior. She has been a fairly healthy and independent woman ever since my uncle died 3 years ago. When my husband and I arrived at her home, we noticed that she had her shoes on the wrong feet. She seemed to be having problems with her memory and had us looking for a book that we think never existed. As I spoke to her trying to make sense out of what I was witnessing, my husband went next door to talk to her neighbor only to learn that she has not left the house (in weeks) and has been displaying changes in her mood. I immediately took her to a local hospital for help.
I recalled that my grandmother (her mother) suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and am wondering if you think this is the same?
If so, is this something I need to worry about?
Is Alzheimer’s disease different from dementia?
Is there a clinic that specializes in care for the elderly?
Mrs. Poyntz, let me first commend you for immediately seeking medical intervention for your aunt. At her age, many medical emergencies can present in a variety of fashions. With a family history of dementia and the aforementioned signs and symptoms, I think it is reasonable to assume that your aunt is suffering from dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). Plaques and tangles in the brain are two of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. The third is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.
Nicole, coincidently, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. So your connection of the two was right on point. Dementia (taken from Latin, originally meaning “madness,” from de- “without” + ment, the root of mens “mind”) is a serious loss of cognitive ability in a previously unimpaired person, beyond what might be expected from normal aging. Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60. Dementia is a problem with the brain that manifests as loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering and reasoning—to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. After a while, this makes it hard for the person to take care of himself or herself. If this is in fact the case, your aunt is not alone as experts suggest that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.
In case you’re wondering, physicians and researchers don’t yet completely understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease. It is clear that it develops because of a series of events that take place in the brain over a long period of time. As you suspected, it is likely that the causes are genetic. However, causes are also thought to include environmental and lifestyle factors. Because people differ in their genetic make-up and lifestyle, the importance of these factors for preventing or delaying Alzheimer’s differs from person to person. Your aunt is not alone as the prevalence of dementia increases exponentially with age. Some researchers report that about half of the population age 80 and over has some degree of dementia. Three quarters of all dementia is due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Three major risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease include: 1. Age- The greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s is increasing age. Most individuals with the disease are 60 or older. The likelihood of