October 17, 2021

A Basic Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease and Treatments

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Forgetting where you placed your car keys, calling a family member by the wrong name, or not remembering to grab milk at the grocery store are all common memory lapses that happen to most of us from time to time. However, if memory lapses become more frequent or affect your ability to do daily activities, you might be questioning if something else is going on, like Alzheimer’s

It can be easy to explain unusual behavior and memory issues as part of the aging process, especially for someone who seems physically healthy. If someone you care about is experiencing signs of Alzheimer’s, being empowered with as much information as possible can help guide you through managing each stage of the disease and help you offer support to your loved one. We put together this guide to help you understand Alzheimer’s disease and the treatment options currently available. 

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

The CDC defines Alzheimer’s Disease as a progressive brain disease that causes memory loss and slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Alzheimer’s may cause a person to become disoriented, get lost in familiar places, lose things frequently, or have trouble communicating.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type (60-80%) of dementia. Dementia is a syndrome that causes brain changes that continuously deteriorate cognitive, behavioral, and social skills. Ultimately, this loss of skills affects a person’s ability to function independently. 

Statistics and facts about Alzheimer’s Disease 

Some quick facts and statistics that are important to know about Alzheimer’s:

  • The life expectancy after initial diagnosis is between four to eight years. However, since the progression of the disease can vary, some people can live past 20 years. 
  • Alzheimer’s disease impacts the parts of the brain that control our thought, memory, and language.
  • In 2020, around 6 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s. That number is projected to hit at least 13 million by 2050. 
  • 1 out of every 3 seniors dies from Alzheimer’s. It’s the 6th leading cause of death in the senior population in the U.S. 
  • The average age of diagnosis is 80 years old. 
  • Early-onset or young-onset Alzheimer’s is a form of disease that affects people younger than age 65. Currently, it makes up 5% to 6% of people with Alzheimer’s disease. 
  • A majority of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s exhibit symptoms of the disease between 30 and 60 years old.

Symptoms and Complications of Alzheimer’s Disease 

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s get worse over time. However, this disease affects each person differently, so symptoms often vary. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Mental decline
  • Change in moods and behavior (becoming more aggressive, agitated, or irritable)
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Forgetting familiar places and people
  • Meaningless repetition of own words
  • Difficulty with self-care 

Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease typically progresses slowly in three general stages: early, middle and late (sometimes medically referred to as mild, moderate, and severe). Just as symptoms vary from person to person, so does each patient’s rate progresses through the disease stages. 

Preclinical stage

Someone with Alzheimer’s has changes in their brain before they show any signs or symptoms. Referred to as the “preclinical” period of Alzheimer’s disease, this time can last for years. 

Early/Mild stage of Alzheimer’s

In the early or mild stage of Alzheimer’s, a person may still function independently but experience memory lapses regarding recent conversations, events, and appointments.  

Symptoms may not be obvious, but family and close friends may notice, and a doctor can identify signs using specific diagnostic tools.

Some challenges in the early stage include:

  • Coming up with the right word or name.
  • Remembering names when introduced to new people.
  • Having trouble completing tasks in social or work settings.
  • Trouble managing money
  • Not being able to recall recent reading material 
  • Losing or misplacing valuables 
  • Encountering an increased difficulty with planning or organizing

Middle/Moderate stage of Alzheimer’s 

Typically the longest stage and can last for many years; the middle stage shows more noticeable symptoms. Someone in this stage often has trouble expressing thoughts and performing everyday tasks without assistance due to damage to the brain’s nerve cells. This can lead to them confusing their words, getting frustrated or upset, and acting out. 

As Alzheimer’s progresses through the middle stage, the person will most likely require more frequent care.

Some challenges in the middle stage include:

  • Anxiety, agitation, and restlessness 
  • Compulsive or repetitive behavior 
  • Delusions/Hallucinations
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Needing help with activities like dressing and bathing
  • Lose track of surroundings and time
  • Getting lost or wandering more frequent
  • Trouble with urine and bowel functions

Late/Severe stage

In late stage Alzheimer’s, symptoms become severe. Those in the final stage lose the ability to respond to the environment around them, hold a conversation, and, ultimately, control their movement. 

As a person’s memory and cognitive skills deteriorate, significant personality changes usually occur, and they eventually need extensive, around-the-clock care.

Some challenges in the late stage include:

  • ​Lose awareness of their surroundings
  • No ability to recall current events or conversations
  • A dramatic decrease in physical skills (walking, sitting, and swallowing)
  • Difficulty communicating/loss of ability to speak coherently 
  • Increased risk of getting an infection, especially pneumonia

Treatment options available for Alzheimer’s Disease

There is no current cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, researchers and scientists have made remarkable strides in understanding more about the disease. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications that fall into two categories:

  • Drugs that may impact the progression of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Medication that may temporarily alleviate some symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Drugs that treat symptoms

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, cognitive symptoms worsen due to brain cells dying and lost connections among cells. It’s important to note that these drugs do not stop the damage to brain cells; instead, they can help lessen or better manage symptoms. 

The following medications can help treat symptoms related to memory and thinking:

  • Aricept®
  • Exelon®
  • Razadyne®
  • Memantine (Namenda®)
  • Donepezil and memantine (Namzaric®)

Alzheimer’s affects more than just memory and thinking; insomnia, agitation, aggression, anxiety, hallucinations, and delusions are also significant symptoms of the disease.  

The FDA has approved one drug to address insomnia in people living with Alzheimer’s:

  • Suvorexant (Belsomra®)

Anti-anxiety medications, anticonvulsants, and antipsychotics all have the risk of severe side effects for those with Alzheimer’s. Therefore they are usually prescribed for a short period of time and when symptoms become severe.  

Drugs that treat the progression of Alzheimer’s

Currently, only one FDA-approved medication is authorized to treat the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, ADUHELM™(Aducanumab).

By targeting the fundamental pathophysiology of the disease, this new drug can help reduce amyloid plaques, slowing down the cognitive and functional decline of people living with early Alzheimer’s. 

ADUHELM™ is administered to patients through 45 to 60-minute intravenous infusions (IV) once a month. The injection can be administered at hospitals or infusion therapy centers

Resources for the caregiver

Becoming a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s can be physically, emotionally, mentalyl, and financially taxing. The demands of day-to-day care, changes in family roles, coping with the progression, and decisions about placement in a care facility can cause caregiver burnout quickly.  

There are resources available to caregivers to empower and support them through this journey with their loved one. Here are some ways to find support and become well-informed about the disease:

  • Alzheimer’s Association – Local support groups, hotline, online tools, publications, and virtual library 
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs– Caregiver support, help to find home health, long-term, respite, hospice care for Veterans suffering from Alzheimer’s
  • Family Caregiver Alliance– Resources for online support groups, research, clinical trials, and tips for navigating through the disease
  • Caregiver Action Network’s Family Caregiver Toolbox– Tips and information on every aspect of caregiving and online support community with several forums. Noteworthy groups to look into: Alzheimer’s caregivers and caregivers coping with depression. 
  • Memory Cafe– Located in hospitals, libraries, senior centers, and other locations across the country, memory cafés support those with Alzheimer’s/dementia and their caregivers. Caregivers can find help battling social isolation and connect with others who are experiencing similar circumstances.

Good coping skills, a strong support system, respite care, and staying physically active are other ways caregivers can manage the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. 

Final thoughts

Some of the most exceptional developments in medical science in recent years have shed light on the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease to offer millions of patients hope. A better understanding of the disease’s impact may lead to better treatments. Ongoing clinical trials are allowing scientists to develop and test several possible interventions to hopefully, one day, address the underlying disease process. 

As a result of the FDA’s approval of ADUHELM™, patients with Alzheimer’s disease now have a critical new treatment to help them potentially fight this challenging disease. At Specialty Infusion Centers, we provide the latest infusion and injection treatments, including ADUHELM™. Visit one of our conveniently located centers for all your infusion and injection needs.