Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain disorder named after the first doctor (Alois Alzheimer) that described the condition in 1906.
It is now believed that approximately 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's and 1 in 3 American families are affected by it.
Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities.
Dementia is a neurological disorder that affects your ability to think, speak, reason, remember and move.
While Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, many other conditions also can cause similar symptoms.
Some of these disorders get worse with time and cannot be cured. Other types respond well to treatment, and their
symptoms may even be reversed.
Stages / Onset
Early-stage Alzheimer's is when problems with memory, thinking and concentration begin to appear.
Individuals in the early-stage typically need minimal assistance with simple daily routines. The term early-onset
refers to Alzheimer's that occurs with people under age 65. People who have early-onset dementia may be in any stage of
dementia – early, middle or late. Experts estimate that some 500,000 people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have early-onset
Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.
Dementia isn't always due to Alzheimer's. Before we conclude that a loved one's memory loss and confusion
stem from an irreversible disease process, a thorough medical evaluation should be performed. Even if the evaluation uncovers
no treatable underlying condition, options may be available for easing its symptoms. Knowing the likely cause of dementia,
however, is the essential first step toward managing it appropriately.
Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease, which usually implies a slow progression.
However, some rare cases do progress more rapidly — over weeks or months instead of years.
A rapid progression may also suggest that a second type of dementia is complicating the Alzheimer's —
such as vascular dementia or Lewy body disease. In addition, rapid progression may
indicate other conditions that mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer's, such as:
- A side effect of certain medications, such as anticholinergic drugs and narcotic pain relievers
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency
- Infections that affect the central nervous system, such as HIV and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
A prompt and thorough medical evaluation is important to determine the exact cause of rapidly progressing
dementia. Some causes are treatable.
Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes AD. There probably is not one single cause, but several
factors that affect each person differently. People with Alzheimer's develop abnormal clumps called
amyloid plaques and tangled bundles of fibers called neurofibrillary tangles in their brain,
which are considered to be the definitive signs of Alzheimer's.
Scientists also have found other brain changes in people with AD. Nerve cells die in areas of the brain
that are vital to memory and other mental abilities, and connections between nerve cells are disrupted.
There also are lower levels of some of the chemicals in the brain that carry messages back and forth between nerve cells.
Age is the most important known risk factor for AD. The number of people with the disease doubles every 5 years
beyond age 65. Family history is another risk factor. Scientists believe that genetics may play a role in many AD cases.
For example, early-onset familial AD, a rare form of AD that usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 60, is inherited.
The more common form of AD is known as late-onset. It occurs later in life, and no obvious inheritance
pattern is seen in most families. However, several risk factor genes may interact with each other and with nongenetic factors to cause the disease.
In addition to genetics, researchers are studying education, diet, and environment to learn what role
they might play in the development of this disease. Scientists are finding increasing evidence that some of the risk factors for
heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyles and low levels of the B vitamin folate,
may also increase the risk of AD. Evidence for physical, mental, and social activities as protective factors against AD is also increasing.
The Symptoms of AD
AD begins slowly. At first, the only symptom may be mild forgetfulness, which can be confused with age related
memory change. Most people with mild forgetfulness do not have AD. In the early stage of AD, people may have trouble remembering
recent events, activities, or the names of familiar people or things. They may not be able to solve simple math problems.
Such difficulties may be a bother, but usually they are not serious enough to cause alarm.
As the disease progresses, symptoms are more easily noticed and become serious enough to cause people with AD or
their family members to seek medical help. Forgetfulness begins to interfere with daily activities. People in the
middle stages of AD may forget how to do simple tasks like brushing their teeth or combing their hair. They can no
onger think clearly and can fail to recognize familiar people and places. They begin to have problems
speaking, understanding, reading, or writing. Later on, people with AD may become anxious or aggressive,
and may wander away from home. Eventually, patients need total care.
The National Alzheimer's Association recommends that we make brain-healthy lifestyle choices to help
keep our brain healthier as we age.
- Keep your brain active every day
- Mentally stimulating activities strengthen brain cells
- Stay socially engaged in activities that stimulate the mind and body
- Adopt a brain-healthy, low fat, low cholesterol diet dark-skinned fruits and vegetables appear to protect brain cells due to their high levels of naturally occurring antioxidants. A brain-healthy diet is most effective when combined with physical and mental activity and social interaction.
- Stay Physically Active. Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells.
The Importance of Exercise & Physical Activity
Study: Exercise May Reduce Risk of Alzheimer's Disease
"Physical Activity Thought to Reduce Plaques in the Brain"
In a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, volunteers 65 years and older were given a battery
of memory tests and questioned about their weekly exercise habits.
After six years, researchers detected a remarkable pattern. Seniors who were physically active at least
three time a week were 38 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.
"It says the decline the brain experiences late in life is not inevitable. It can be affected by things
like habitual exercise," said lead study author Dr. Eric Larson of the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle.
In the study, "exercise" was anything from simple aerobics to walking or hiking to 15 minutes of stretching.
The theory is that exercise not only increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain — it may also reduce the
telltale "plaque" in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Many studies have shown that exercise is beneficial for people with Alzheimer's disease. Along with
cardiovascular fitness, increased endurance, and strength, people with Alzheimer’s disease get
added benefits from exercising.
Benefits of regular exercises in people with Alzheimer's disease include maintenance of motor skills,
decreased falls, and reduced rate of disease associated mental decline. Improved behavior, improved memory,
and better communication skills are a few other benefits associated with routine exercise programs in Alzheimer's
Middle-aged individuals who exercise vigorously enough to perspire and breathe hard for 20 to 30 minutes at
least twice a week may reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 60 percent,
according to a Lancet Neurology study funded in part by the Alzheimer 's Association. (*see note below)
Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells.
It also can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, and thereby protect against those
risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
Growing evidence shows that physical exercise is most effective when done regularly, and in combination
with a brain-healthy diet, mental activity and social interaction.
Aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption, which benefits brain function; aerobic fitness has been
found to reduce brain cell loss in elderly subjects. Walking, bicycling, gardening and other activities of about 30
minutes daily get the body moving and the heart pumping.
The Alzheimer's Association believes it is important for Americans to understand that healthy aging is a
process that should begin sooner in life rather than later in order to remain healthy of body and mind for as long as possible.
What you do to improve your physical health may actually go to your head, according to Dr. Antonio Convit
of the New York University School of Medicine.
"We thought that we were born with a brain and that brain degenerated as we aged until we died," he says. "
Now we know that there are many triggers that mke parts of the brain regenerate themselves."
One of those triggers may be linked to your fitness level.
"Cardiovascular exercise that's done over a longer period of time will tend to reduce the amount of
tissue you lose as you age," says Stan Colcombe, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana.
Colcombe was part of a team of researchers at the University of Illinois who looked at MRI scans of people 55
or older and discovered dramatic differences in their brains. The people who were physically fit had gray matter
in better shape.
NYU's Convit found that losing weight can also improve memory function.
"[Losing weight] will improve how you regulate your glucose, and we have shown that improved glucose
regulation is associated with better memory."
Dealing with blood sugar poorly not only affects one's ability to remember but also the size of the hippocampus,
the part of the brain dealing with memory.
Effects of Exercise on Neurologic Diseases and Mental Decline
A 2001 study reported that older people who regularly exercised had lower rates of mental deterioration,
Alzheimer's, and dementia of any type. Aerobic exercise is linked with improved mental vigor, in all people,
including reaction time, acuity, and math skills. Exercising may even enhance creativity and imagination. According to one study,
older people who are physically fit respond to mental challenges just as quickly as unfit young adults. Another study
found that walking regularly protects women from mental decline, and in fact, the more they walked per week, the more protection they enjoyed.
According to a new study just published (2012) in the Archives of Internal Medicine,
Resistance training could be an important part of reversing memory decline in elderly women with mild memory problems.
This is the first study that demonstrates the benefits of resistance exercises in those who already suffer from cognitive impairment.
Study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose says, "Exercise is attractive as a prevention strategy for dementia as it is universally
accessible and cost-effective."
A 2004 study showed that exercise can reverse a high-fat diets harmful effects on neurologic function.
People with existing neurologic diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinsons disease, and Alzheimers
disease, should be encouraged to exercise. Patients with neurological disorders who
exercise experience a reduction in, and even reversal of, muscle atrophy. In addition, the psychological
benefits of exercise are extremely important in managing these disorders.
As an exercise therapist for the Alzheimers Caregivers Support Center in Naples FL, Susan Branco,
a member of the National Council on Aging & the American Senior Fitness Association has seen first hand the
positive results that her therapeutic exercise program has on participants in her classes.
Susan's program (described below) is now available on DVD, for use in the privacy of your home. If you or
someone you know has Alzheimers, using this program daily, can make a difference.
This seated exercise program was designed for people with Alzheimers, Parkinsons and other neurological or muscular disorders.
A seated exercise program like this one is particularly well suited for people that are starting an exercise program later in life
( 65+; early onset - see note below) This program includes stretching and resistance training routines that can improve
circulation and help to minimize the progression of memory decline for those already experiencing mild memory impairment.
Using this program regularly will help to improve overall flexibility and fitness level so that you can maintain a higher
level of independence. Caregivers ( see notes below*) will benefit from doing this program as well.
Note: This program includes 1 exercise band. Additional exercise bands may be ordered separately by clicking
. 1 or 2 lb. hand weights are recommended.
* Note: younger caregivers, early onset patients and middle-aged individuals looking for a general
preventative exercise program should consider our Interval Circuit Program
THERAPEUTIC FITNESS PROGRAM: