Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), the most common form of elderly-onset dementia, affects 5.4 million Americans a year. But before this diagnosis is made, a physician will want to rule out other non-fatal causes for memory loss.
After a series of tests and a physical exam, a physician may suggest imaging procedures like an MRI or a CAT scan. Images of the brain can help the physician find evidence of a stroke or other physical brain damage which would explain your loved one’s trouble with memory. Without evidence of brain damage, a physician will likely consider AD.
Risk factors for AD begin with, but are not limited to, age. Individuals greater than 65 years old are most commonly diagnosed but AD is not a common ailment for all persons of advanced age.
A combination of the factors below contribute to one’s likelihood of developing AD:
- Cardiovascular disease risk factors
- Lack of social engagement
- Diet deficiencies
- Head injury or traumatic brain injury
- Age ≥65 years
- Family history (parent, brother, or sister)
- Genetic evidence (specifically the ɛ4 form of the gene apolipoprotein E)
- Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
While genetic and family history factors are outside of a patient’s control, several other factors are part of a patient’s lifestyle. For example, cardiovascular health can be improved and maintained with exercise. Studies suggest social engagement can contribute to an active mind. The effects of diet on brain function are also proven.
Some uncontrollable risk factors are unseen, meaning the patient may not even know he has them. Acute trauma such as a mild stroke may go undetected. A head injury like a concussion, even if suffered years ago, can result in brain damage.
To diagnose AD, a family practitioner asks a patient for family history and the patient’s personal history. If your loved one has shown changes in mental health or behavior, these may be clues to the diagnosis of AD. The physician will use these clues along with genetic or biomarker tests can determine if your loved one has AD.
The Three Stages of Alzheimer’s
For many families the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease can be devastating. You want to know what life will be like for your loved one and for you as a caregiver. You’ll want to know what to expect.
In healthcare environments, AD is commonly discussed as three progressive stages:
- mild/early stage
- moderate/mid-stage, and
- severe/late stage.
Understanding what stage your loved one is in can help set the right expectations.
In early-onset or the mild stage, your loved one may seem mostly unaffected. Taking care with explanations, developing precautionary habits, and being patient with your loved one may be enough.
In the moderate or mid-stage your loved one will likely experience difficulty with some personal care tasks, fine motor skills, or household responsibilities.
In a severe or late-stage of AD, your loved one may need full medical attention.