Disorders of Brain Function

The underlying causes of certain neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease are not yet known. However, much is known about other neurological disorders—such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and migraines— although they are not yet fully understood. Research is ongoing to understand these disorders better and to develop effective treatments.

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease in which brain cells degenerate and die, causing memory loss, confusion, loss of intellectual abilities (including thinking, reasoning, judgment, and memory), physical deterioration, and eventually death. It can also cause significant changes in mood, personality, and behavior. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of irreversible dementia (progressive deterioration of mental functioning). The disease usually occurs after age 65, and progresses over a course of about 8 to 10 years. However, it can take as few as 2 or as many as 20 years.

The cause of Alzheimer's disease is unknown. Most people who develop Alzheimer's disease have no family history of it. Women are affected more often than men, but this may be related to the fact that women generally live longer and the disease occurs later in life. Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, which vary from person to person, appear gradually and worsen over time. Initial symptoms—such as inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, anxiety, and depression—often go unnoticed or may be mistakenly attributed to normal aging. Memory problems eventually worsen, and the person also experiences impaired intellectual skills. He or she becomes apathetic and withdrawn. In later stages of the disease the person becomes severely confused and disoriented and also may become irritable, fearful, suspicious, delusional, agitated, and even violent. Eventually the person will be unable to perform daily activities (such as bathing, dressing, eating, and using the toilet) and will need total care.

Diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is based on symptoms (as described by the person or his or her family members) and tests that evaluate various aspects of mental functioning (such as short-term memory). To make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, the doctor

Stimulate Your Mind

Just as exercise strengthens your muscles, neurological research shows that "exercising" your brain may help keep it strong as you age. Engaging in intellectually stimulating activities such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, and learning new things increases the number of connections between the cells in your brain. Doctors now think that these extra connections may provide a buffer against the destructive effects of Alzheimer's disease and, in some cases, postpone the onset of symptoms.

Stimulate Your Mind

Just as exercise strengthens your muscles, neurological research shows that "exercising" your brain may help keep it strong as you age. Engaging in intellectually stimulating activities such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, and learning new things increases the number of connections between the cells in your brain. Doctors now think that these extra connections may provide a buffer against the destructive effects of Alzheimer's disease and, in some cases, postpone the onset of symptoms.

needs to rule out other possible causes of the person's symptoms, such as depression (see page 345), kidney failure (see page 291), liver disease, thyroid disorders, excessive alcohol intake, side effects of medication, drug interactions, fatigue, poor diet, vision problems, and hearing problems. Parkinson's disease (see page 337), stroke (see page 323), and other neurological disorders, such as meningitis (see page 341) or encephalitis (see page 341), also can cause similar symptoms. Computed tomography (CT) scanning and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI; see "Diagnostic Procedures," page 342) are not performed to diagnose Alzheimer's disease but often are used to rule out other possible causes of dementia, such as a brain tumor (see page 326) or a stroke.

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, some people in the early to middle stages of the disease may benefit from medications (such as donepezil or tacrine) that help improve memory and manage some of the behavior problems caused by the disease. Other medications to treat or cure Alzheimer's disease are currently under investigation.

Brain and Nervous System

Caring for a Person Who Has Alzheimer's Disease Caregiving can be demanding, stressful, and exhausting. If you are caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer's disease, learn all you can about the disease so you can be adequately prepared to deal with this challenging situation. Here are some useful recommendations for caregivers:

  • Watch for warning signs of Alzheimer's disease (see next page) such as for-getfulness, confusion, or withdrawal. Some symptoms may be due to another underlying disease or condition—such as depression (see page 345)—that can be treated and cured.
  • Gather useful information (such as educational materials and referrals to support groups) from reliable sources such as your doctor, your local library, your local hospital, and your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
  • Make all necessary legal and financial arrangements (including advance directives, durable power of attorney, and payment of healthcare costs) as soon as possible. This will help prevent potential legal and financial problems in the future. Contact a lawyer for additional information and assistance.
  • Take all necessary precautions to protect your loved one from potential dangers such as falls, burns, poisoning, and wandering away from home. Taking steps such as locking away hazardous objects and materials (including medications, cleaning fluids, matches, lighters, and firearms), installing special locks on doors and windows, and placing night-lights along the route from the bedroom to the bathroom and in the bathroom itself can help prevent serious injuries. The Alzheimer's Association offers a nationwide program called Safe Return that registers people with memory problems and provides them with special identification. The program maintains a 24-hour, toll-free number to call when a registered person is either lost or found. Contact your doctor or the Alzheimer's Association for additional information.
All About Alzheimers

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