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Taking Care: Early diagnosis may help slow Alzheimer’s disease

Note: This story is the sixth in a series from our annual Health & Wellness special section, part of the Chronicle’s April 1 print edition. The section was sponsored by Franciscan Health. This information is from Alzheimer’s Association Illinois.

When looking through your family, your social circle, your work group or neighborhood, do you know someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s? Even movie actors aren’t immune. Hollywood star Bruce Willis was recently diagnosed with progressive nerve cell loss known as frontotemporal dementia. 

As we age, there are moments of forgetfulness or being unable to remember words. Doctors say this is normal. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are different from those momentary lapses. 

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. It affects memory loss and other cognitive abilities that impact daily living. The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information.

The disease typically impacts persons 65 and older, but Alzheimer’s does strike younger patients who receive a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. 

Researchers have learned that Alzheimer’s changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning. As the disease advances through the brain, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.

Alzheimer’s has no cure, but there are treatments that demonstrate that removing beta-amyloid, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, from the brain reduces cognitive and functional decline in people living with early Alzheimer’s. Other treatments can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Today, there is a worldwide effort underway to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset and prevent it from developing.

People with memory loss or other possible signs of Alzheimer’s may find it hard to recognize they have a problem. Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family members or friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. Earlier diagnosis and intervention methods are improving dramatically, and treatment options and sources of support can improve quality of life.

For additional information or resources, contact Alzheimer’s Association Illinois at 1-800-272-3900 or visit alz.org.

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