This is What Happens To Your Brain and Body Before and After an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that can wreak havoc on your brain and body. In 2013, nearly 85,000 people in the United States died from the disease. But what exactly happens to you in order for there to be a diagnosis? And what can you expect once you’re diagnosed? Here’s every change that comes with Alzheimer’s, from what happens in the brain to cause those initial symptoms to, sadly, eventual death.

Damage to the brain can start nearly a decade before any symptoms show

Brain lobes in different colors

Cognitive impairment starts long before you notice it. | iStock.com/alex-mit

Alzheimer’s isn’t a disease that happens overnight. The brain can start experiencing damage up to 10 years before symptoms show. (If cells die at a slow rate, it takes a long time for symptoms to become noticeable.) Scientists have begun to explore early changes in brain and body fluid that can be detectable years before real symptoms — it could shed light on how the disease develops in the first place.

Next: The disease starts when cells get disrupted. 

Plaque collects in the brain, which disrupts cell function

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Visual of plaque between neurons in an Alzheimer’s patient. | selvanegra/Getty Images

Cells become damaged because as the brain ages, plaque can start to build up in the brain. A naturally occurring protein in the brain, known as beta-amyloid 42, can break down and form toxic plaque between neurons. Since neurons are used to send signals from the brain to the body, plaque buildup reduces their function. If the neurons can’t function properly, cognitive skills and physical abilities can be diminished.

Next: The disease is also caused by this. 

Some cells become ‘tangled’

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Visual of neurofibrillary tangles versus healthy neurons | ttsz/Getty Images

Besides plaque blocking the neurons, tangles can also cause damage. Another protein found in the brain, the tau protein, can sometimes bind to other tau proteins and create a tangle in the brain (known as a neurofibrillary tangle). The tangles occur inside the neurons, which inhibits their function by blocking the neuron’s transport system. This means the neuron can’t communicate with other neurons in the brain, which leads to cognitive and physical impairment.

Next: As time goes on, more cells die. 

More and more cells begin to die

A close-up of an older woman's face

Eventually, more cells die, and symptoms start to appear. | Shironosovz/Getty Images

Different abnormalities in brain proteins begin to inhibit the cells in different ways. When the cells can’t do their jobs, they die off. The average adult brain contains about 100 billion cells, so it takes a little while for enough of those cells to die before symptoms show. However, with those proteins malfunctioning, the entire brain is slowly losing its abilities. After a while, the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to show.

Next: This is usually the first symptom. 

You might notice some memory loss

Older woman looking sad

Memory loss is one of the first signs of the disease. | Dmitry Berkut/iStock/Getty Images

One of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s is memory loss because your memory is one of the first things affected by the loss of brain cells. You might forget you were supposed to be somewhere at a certain time or have the same conversation with someone over and over again, forgetting you already spoke to them. As the brain cells begin to die, the memory is no longer as sharp as it once was. Having a lapse in memory once in a while is normal, but when it starts to happen more often, it is cause for concern.

Next: This symptom might appear shortly after. 

You begin to have trouble problem solving

Senior Man With Adult Daughter

Confusion will set in. | Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Getty Images

Another early sign of Alzheimer’s is trouble problem solving. Since your cognitive skills are on a downturn, making simple decisions can become a draining task. You might find yourself incapable of coming to a conclusion about a specific problem, such as figuring out how much you should spend on something or determining the best route to take to get to a destination. The buildup of plaque and tangles have disabled the brain’s ability to think through certain issues.

Next: This is another common early symptom. 

You might lose your train of thought

Upset old lady

You might start to lose your train of thought while in conversation. | Daisy-Daisy/iStock/Getty Images

Everyone loses their train of thought sometimes; we’re only human. But when it becomes consistently difficult to hold a conversation, it’s a sign that something is wrong. Memory loss is the most notable sign of Alzheimer’s, and these other impairments stem from the cells dying; and the brain can no longer perform its regular duties. At this point, it’s time to consult a doctor.

Next: Here’s what you can expect during that doctor’s visit. 

A trip to the doctor may result in an Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Older at doctor

A trip to the doctor is necessary for persistent symptoms. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

It’s not easy to see a doctor when the concern of Alzheimer’s is in the back of your mind. The tricky part about an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is there is no definitive way to confirm the disease. It is up to the doctor’s analysis of your symptoms and cognitive abilities. Your doctor will check your medical history as well as give you a “mental test” to determine how proficient you are in areas such as memory, counting, problem solving skills, and more. The results will tell your doctor whether or not you have Alzheimer’s.

Next: Once you enter the middle stages of the disease, the symptoms become more noticeable. 

The symptoms will become more noticeable to others

Grandparents And Grandchildren

Others around you — young and old — might start to notice your symptoms. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images

Once the diagnosis is made, the disease will continue to progress. At this point, more people might notice the symptoms. There are several medications that can be prescribed to ease symptoms and reduce the mental blockage. But unfortunately, there is no cure for the disease, so the symptoms will progress regardless. And after a while, physical symptoms may begin to appear as well.

Next: These are some common physical symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s. 

You may become unable to control your bladder or bowels

Man holding toilet paper

You may experience incontinence with Alzheimer’s. | BrianAJackson/Getty Images

As much as 70% of Alzheimer’s patients will suffer from incontinence, or the inability to control their bladder or bowels. For those with the disease, the brain has difficulty relaying messages. This means it doesn’t always signal the bladder is full or you need to use the bathroom. This can lead to incontinence. Plus, cognitive issues such as forgetting where the bathroom is or not communicating that you need to use the bathroom can also lead to incontinence.

Next: This can be disrupted. 

Sleep patterns will start to become irregular

Senior woman sleeping on bed in bedroom at home

You sleep habits might become irregular. | Wavebreakmedia/Getty Images

Another physical symptom that may appear is an off-balance sleep pattern. The loss of brain cells can disrupt the body’s sleep cycle. The body doesn’t always know when it’s time to go to bed, which can cause very restless sleeps during the night and leave you napping in the middle of the day. The more tired you are, the more disoriented you are, and disorientation is already a side effect of Alzheimer’s. There are ways to better control sleep patterns; your doctor can prescribe you medication to make sleeping easier.

Next: In the late stages of the disease, people you are closest to may become unrecognizable. 

You might no longer recognize family members

Grand parents with grand children

You will start to forget who those around you are. | Bowdenimages/iStock/Getty Images

When the disease hits its later stage, family and friends may become unrecognizable. You might remember your son or daughter but aren’t sure who your granddaughter is. Sometimes, even the closest family members can be forgotten. This is the time when the disease tends to hit those around you the hardest. It’s the feeling of the relationship distancing; those you once loved are now strangers to you. Sometimes, the disorientation subsides, and the memories of them will pop back into your mind. But the next time you see them, the same thing will likely happen.

Next: You become unaware of where you are. 

You eventually lose awareness of your surroundings

father son dementia

You might forget where you are, what year it is, and who is around you. | MonkeyBusinessImages/Getty Images

Disorientation worsens in the late stages of the disease, and you may completely forget where you are or even what year it is. You might suddenly think it’s years earlier, and you might refer to family members who are no longer alive. Or, you might think you’re at home when you’re actually in an assisted living facility. In the later stages of the disease, it’s hard to get a handle on what year it is, where you are, and who the people around you are.

Next: The physical disabilities are at their worst in the late stages. 

Your physical abilities decrease dramatically, preventing you from walking, sitting, and even swallowing

wheelchair

You might find walking, sitting, and swallowing difficult. | motortion/Getty Images

As the disease progresses, the physical disabilities tend to get worse. In most cases, people eventually lose the ability to walk. After a while, you might no longer be able to swallow food either, which creates a choking hazard. It’s caused by a decrease in the brain’s motor and sensory abilities. At the latest point in the disease, some people are unable to sit up.

Next: Alzheimer’s makes you easily prone to infections, which are the most common cause of death. 

Your body becomes more susceptible to infections and death

Alzheimer's patient hand

Complications from Alzheimer’s eventually lead to death. | Ocskaymark/Getty Images

Those with Alzheimer’s eventually have a compromised immune system because of toxic materials in the brain, which makes disease a serious issue. You might come down with pneumonia and be unable to fight it off, which is common among Alzheimer’s patients. Alzheimer’s itself does not kill people, but the side effects of the illness (such as the inability to swallow or the body’s weakened immune system) can put patients in compromising situations that result in death.

Aspiration pneumonia, which occurs when foods or liquids travel down the windpipe instead of down the esophagus, causes the majority of deaths related to Alzheimer’s. Infection and malnutrition are also common causes of death.

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