Despite being one of the leading causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s remains a mystery. The cause of this irreversible and progressive cognitive disorder is still unknown, but the symptoms are well understood. With millions of Americans diagnosed with the disease each year, scientists have been researching causes and cures. And while more research needs to be done, they now have a much better understanding of how Alzheimer’s affects the brain.
How Alzheimer’s Affects the Brain
What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia, is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States according to the National Institute on Aging. That puts it not far behind heart disease and cancer. The NIA estimates that more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. And in many cases, symptoms can appear as early as age 60. Symptoms vary from memory loss and personality changes to the inability to perform simple tasks. Unfortunately, no cure currently exists. The good news is that researchers now have a much better understanding of how Alzheimer’s affects the brain.
What Happens to the Brain of Someone with Alzheimer’s?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. Damage can be so severe that over time, the brain actually shrinks. Damage to the brain’s nerves and cell structure impedes memory and cognitive abilities.
When looked at under a microscope, brain tissue from someone with Alzheimer’s has fewer nerve cells and synapses than tissue found in a healthy brain. Researchers have also found abnormal plaque buildup in brains with Alzheimer’s. Plaques are clusters of protein fragments that can accumulate between nerve cells and disrupt transmission between the cells.
As nerves are damaged and blocked by plaques, dead nerve cells develop tangles. As the Alzheimer’s Association explains, “Tangles destroy a vital cell transport system made of proteins.” In a healthy brain, this transport system is organized in parallel strands, and messages and materials are able to easily move along the system. Once tangles appear, the system begins to fall apart, and essential nutrients and messages are suddenly unable to move between cells. Once this happens, those cells begin to die.
What Causes Alzheimer’s?
The cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown, but once symptoms appear, the disease can progress throughout the brain. In fact, according to the NIA, it’s very likely that damage to the brain begins years before symptoms first appear. Once it’s diagnosed, Alzheimer’s progresses at different speeds. On average, people with Alzheimer’s live eight years, but some can survive for decades.
In cases of mild or early-stage Alzheimer’s, memory and cognitive thinking are impaired. This is also when most people are first diagnosed with the disease. These symptoms are easily noticed, and are most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s. But as the disease progresses, new and more serious symptoms can arise, including confusion, personality changes, depression, anxiety, paranoia, and difficulty with speech.
Researchers are continuing to learn how Alzheimer’s affects the brain, and new data will help the medical community develop treatments to curb symptoms. If you’re worried your loved one might be showing signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia, check out this blog post, where we talk about early warning signs. In addition, if you’re seeking a new home for your loved one, consider Waterstone on Augusta. Our vibrant and welcoming community is located in the heart of downtown Greenville, South Carolina. We offer premier assisted living and memory care facilities that focus on providing an enriching lifestyle for seniors. Schedule a tour online or give us a call at 864-605-7236.