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
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.
Some cells become ‘tangled’
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.
Plaque collects in the brain, which disrupts cell function
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.
More and more cells begin to die
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.
You might notice some memory loss
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.