Alzheimer's disease has developed into a major health concern for the elderly population throughout the world. This degenerative brain disorder was first described by Alois Alzheimer in 1907. Today Alzheimer's is one of the most prevalent forms of brain disorders contributing to as much as 50 to 70% of all reported cases of dementia. Over the years the study of early onset Alzheimer's disease (pre-senile AD) has kind of overshadowed the study of late onset Alzheimer in elderly group. However the disease statistics indicate an increasing susceptibility of the older population. Approximately 5% of the population above 65 years of age and around 20% of the people above 85 years of age are affected by Alzheimer's disease. Hence what was previously ignored as an inevitable old age symptom (senile dementia) is now being properly recognized as an illness. This new perspective of AD has resulted in a drastically altered understanding and new approach towards diagnosis and treatment. Let us study the disease in a little detail by analyzing the symptoms and the etiology along with the diagnostic approaches and the currently available treatment methods. In the process we will also briefly discuss some other common forms of dementia and how AD can be differentiated from them.
The Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's is a progressive, degenerative, and irreversible brain disease that stifles the normal cognitive and functional abilities of the affected person. There is a gradual deterioration of the mental faculties, which may ultimately lead to total dysfunction of the brain resulting in the death of the patient. In general the progress of the disease is very slow and steady and this presents considerable difficulty in early identification of the disease. However in some patients there is a sudden and rapid decline in brain function leading to death in a few years. Since the human brain is very adaptive the onset of Alzheimer's disease may not be obvious and it is only when as much as 80% of the brain cells are damaged symptoms are conspicuous. [Bennett, 63]
The main cause for the disease is the destruction of the brain cells particularly in the cortex region. In the first stage of the disease the region in the cerebral cortex that is associated with memory is affected. Then as the disease progresses other regions in the cerebral cortex also undergo progressive deterioration leading to total impairment of functional and cognitive abilities. Though as in any other form of dementia syndrome memory loss is one of the chief and noticeable problems the effect of the disease extends to much more than memory loss and in most of the cases there is a total crippling of the brain functions thereby affecting the individuals ability to relate and respond appropriately to the outside world.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
As discussed above Alzheimer's disease is characterized by a wide variety of symptoms from memory loss or amnesia, language difficulties, Dyspraxia or difficulties in performing complex tasks to depression and other kinds of psychotic symptoms. It has to be understood that a careful study of the symptoms followed by detailed tests and diagnosis is essential to identify Alzheimer's disease as most of the other kinds of dementia share the same kind of symptoms. This inter-relatedness of the symptoms makes it more difficult to specifically identify the nature of the dementia. Let us discuss each of these in a little detail.
Memory loss (amnesia) is one of the most noticeable and manifest symptom which is fairly common in all forms of dementia. It is observed that amnesia is more pronounced for the latest or the recent events and in many cases the person is able to recollect events that happened long back. This selective loss of memory is attributed to the impairment in storage mechanism of the brain. The most common signs of memory loss include the person's inability to recollect names, making lists even for trivial and routine tasks, repeated phone calls to relatives. The level of memory loss is acute in the later stages of the disease and the patient starts to forget faces and fails to identify his family.
This is another predominant trait in Alzheimer's disease. Typically patients have difficulty in finding words and in naming objects. Nominal dysphasia, as the problem is identified is caused by the lesions in the left posterior temporoparietal region of the brain. There is a general loss of expressive ability along with the onset of receptive difficulties. These symptoms can be easily confirmed by subjecting the patient to standard tests such as Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE). [Lovestone, 13]
Dyspraxia refers to the difficulties associated with performing complex tasks. Dyspraxia due to Alzheimer's disease is associated with the poor transmission of the messages from the brain to the various organs of the body. Dressing Dyspraxia and 'Ideomotor Dyspraxia' are more pronounced with the patient being unable to dress himself properly and even finding difficulties with the daily grooming activities.
Agnosia and Prosopagnosia
The ability to recognize objects and faces is seriously affected in patents suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In many cases the patients exhibit difficulty in recognizing their own image leading to a medical condition known as autoprosopagnosia. There is also a distinct manifestation of topographical disorientation with the patient being unable to understand the environment. Because of topographical disorientation patients may find difficulty in driving as the disease advances. [Lovestone, 15]
Depression and other Psychotic Symptoms
Depression is a fairly common problem associated with Alzheimer's disease. Physicians have to be careful in their treatment of depression symptoms associated with AD because many of the anti-depressant medications exhibit anticholinergic activity. Incidentally this directly interferes with the cholinergic therapy which is one of the main treatment methods in Alzheimer's Disease. Furthermore there is a marked manifestation of non-cognitive disorders. Frequent mood swings, visual and auditory hallucinations are reported in 50% of all AD patients. Incontinence is another diagnostic symptom, which is fairly common to many other forms of dementia including AD.
As we discussed earlier Alzheimer's disease does not reveal itself until such time when the disease is moderately advanced. However it is important to have an early diagnosis of the problem to be proactive in treatment and to minimize the severity of the symptoms. Today with the availability of drugs to treat the problem early diagnosis presents us with an opportunity to significantly improve the situation for the patient and to provide effective treatment. Detecting cognitive impairment is the first step in the diagnosis of the disease. But the main difficulty lies in the fact that the general practitioner may not detect AD and even if detected may not correctly attribute it to Alzheimer's disease. Typically a person with AD will have memory loss and a general decline in activity. Once the clinician suspects AD the next step in the diagnostic process is to subject the patient to a cognitive screening test.
Screening Tests for Cognitive Impairment
Detecting loss of cognitive ability is easily done using a pretty simple screening test known as the AMTS. The Abbreviated Mental Test Score is a 10-point scale for measuring the cognitive response level of the patient. A score of 8 or below in this scale is clearly indicative of cognitive impairment. A person with good cognitive ability is expected to score a full 10 in the AMTS. Even a one-point deficit indicates a possible cognitive decline due to dementia. Once the clinician has performed the AMTS and identified a cognitive loss the next step in the diagnosis is to ascertain the exact cause for the symptom. In order to clearly trace the disease it is essential to probe for further evidence of cognitive impairment and also to carefully watch the pattern of the disease progress. Gathering information from the immediate family members of the patient will reveal vital information. Then the patient is subjected to another screening test known as the MMSE (Mini Mental State Examination). Usually cases of dementia are characterized by a progressive decline in memory, speech and other personality disorders.
Once the clinician has diagnosed the symptoms of dementia without any apparent systemic cause for the same the next step is to arrive at a disease specific diagnosis using appropriate criteria for the different kinds of dementia. Using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT scan and EEG would reveal the extent of damage of the cerebral cortex. Doctors can be hundred percent sure of the AD only after looking at the tangles and plaques within the brain. As this is only possible in an autopsy all the diagnostic methods that we discussed above cannot guarantee accurate diagnosis. However using neuroimaging experienced radiologists can distinguish between age related structural changes within the brain from the brain shrinkage observed in Alzheimer's disease. Hence brain scans have an important role in the diagnostic methods. [Lovestone, 43]
Positron Emission Topography
This facility is a highly expensive one and presently restricted only to research institutions. The advantage of PET is that it measures the metabolic rate inside the…