Alzheimer's disease is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions across the world. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have the memory-loss illness and this number is projected to drastically increase as the massive baby boomer generation grows older. If you care for or know someone who is impacted by Alzheimer's, it's important that you're up to date on all of the important information. Here are five key facts about the disease that may surprise you.
1. Alzheimer's is almost always accompanied by another condition.
The majority of those who experience the effects of Alzheimer's disease are diagnosed with another serious medical condition. According to U.S. News and World Report, approximately 60 percent of Alzheimer's patients also have high blood pressure, 26 percent have coronary heart disease, 23 percent have diabetes and 18 percent experience osteoporosis. Healthline explained that these illness may even trigger the onset of the disease.
The presence of Alzheimer's also makes these conditions much more challenging to manage. Diabetes, for example, requires insulin checkups and adherence to a strict diet. Memory impairment makes these responsibilities challenging and is often what results in the initial need for a caregiver.
2. Active learning may lower people's Alzheimer's risk.
Research has shown that active learning can lower people's chances of developing a memory-loss condition, according to Healthline. This is especially true as individuals enter their later years of life. Those who take classes, challenge themselves to new activities, such as learning a new skill or language, and engage in group activities have a lower risk of cognitive impairment. Learning in social environments is particularly beneficial, which is why many seniors experiencing memory loss move to an Alzheimer's care home where they're surrounded by friends and are at a lower risk of isolation.
3. Alzheimer's has been linked to a loss of sense of smell.
The National Institutes of Health noted that one unique symptom of Alzheimer's disease is reduced ability to smell. Studies have shown that a sudden loss of sense of smell is often an early sign of the disease. However, it has also been associated with other chronic conditions in addition to Alzheimer's, so people shouldn't assume that it's the start of memory loss. For example, while loss of smell has been shown to be a common warning sign of serious illnesses like Parkinson's disease and brain damage, it's also been linked to less-serious causes, like sinus infections. People should always see their doctors if they experience difficulty smelling to determine the cause of the problem.
4. There are seven stages of Alzheimer's.
As Alzheimer's disease is a steady progression, its symptoms have been organized into seven distinct stages. The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation pointed out that the first two stages of memory loss include normal forgetfulness. It often isn't until the third stage, mild cognitive impairment, that symptoms become noticeable and include frequent repetition of questions or statements and trouble concentrating. Stage four is when patients are officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's. From here, the condition progresses to moderate, then moderately severe and, finally severe. People usually begin to require caregiver assistance beginning at stage 5, as this is when daily tasks, such as choosing clothing, often become too challenging to take on by themselves.
5. Alzheimer's alters the brain's structure.
Alzheimer's does more than inhibit people's mental capabilities, but changes the brain physically as well. For example, the condition can cause the brain's ventricles to enlarge and the cerebral cortex and hippocampus to shrink dramatically. This can cause people to experience sensory problems with sight and smell. This is why it's not uncommon for Alzheimer's patients to experience sleep disturbances and severe hallucinations, including both visual and auditory incidents. Hallucinations can last for several minutes and may occur on a daily basis.
The alteration to the brain's structure also frequently results in sight-related issues like decreased sensitivity to differences in contrast, inability to detect movement, changes to the pupils' reaction to light and difficulty directing or moving gaze. Alzheimer's patients experiencing these visual and auditory symptoms should see their doctors, as there are anti-dementia drugs that can help alleviate these symptoms. Many people also respond well to antipsychotic drugs, but these may cause side effects that worsen Alzheimer's symptoms, so it's best to rely on the doctor for professional advice.