Category Archives: disease

Sleep: Not an Option

Did you know that human beings might need to spend at least 1/3 of their lives sleeping or nearly twenty-four years in bed over an average lifetime? Representing a basic human need and a part of individuals’ life, sleep is vital to people’s health and wellbeing. However, and despite the importance of sleep, many individuals take it for granted and don’t get enough of it while subsequent constant sleep loss may result in common health problems. Although most of us suffer from sleep difficulties at least a few nights per week, sporadic cases of insomnia don’t generally signify a big concern; nevertheless settling for a permanent sleep time of 4 to 6 hours a day can interfere with our daily lives.

While different abnormalities in the organism, emotional disorders, work shifts and other age, health and lifestyle conditions are tied to sleep problems and prevent a large number of people from getting the amount of sleep they need, those individuals who actually have the option of getting 8 or more hours of sleep but would rather choose to stay up late doing other things, should benefit instead from the much-needed rest that our minds and bodies require to function normally and stay healthy. As unimportant as they may seem, constantly staying late partying, talking to friends, playing online, working extra hours or studying, among others, are all factors that can drive individuals away form getting the right quantity and quality of sleep their bodies demand.

The exact amount of sleep required varies from person to person depending on people’s individual needs, health, age and lifestyle. For instance, some people are well rested after only 6 hours of sleep, but because of the human biological composition and our early hereditary makeup, individuals are not ready to run on small amounts of sleep for such genetic structure hasn’t developed as fast as to match the pace of the hectic society in which we live. In spite of these facts, experts at the National Sleep Foundation assert that getting 8 hours of sleep for adults and 8 to 9 hours for teenagers is desirable. Moreover, children usually need more sleep than adults, so specialists have estimated that kids between 3 to 5 years need 11 to 13 hours of sleep while children from 6 and up to 12 years need about 10 to 11 hours of sleep. A more detailed table published by the National Sleep Foundation allocating the number of hours needed for each age group can be found by clicking here.

More and more investigation studies conducted by sleep researchers and scientists have been revealed to confirm that deficient sleep causes health problems typically associated with hypertension, diabetes and weight gain, as well as neurobehavioral impairments (having the same effects as drinking alcohol); daytime drowsiness; irritability; apathy; moodiness; impaired memory; microsleeps (lasting from 5 to 10 seconds); stress; anxiety; increases in accidents, injuries and behavioral problems; deficiencies in the immune system; reduced concentration, learning and productivity; reduced longevity, reaction times and hypnagogic hallucinations (experienced between wakefulness and sleep), all of which are typical signs related to inadequate sleep. This means that depriving ourselves from sleep will not make the cut if we are to remain fully alert, creative, energetic and in a good mood during the normal course of our daily activities.

People are oftentimes motivated to spend less time sleeping and more time working, but they need to recharge their batteries during the night so that they can think more clearly during daytime. The problem is most individuals feel like they can’t afford what they believe to be the ‘luxury’ of spending so much time sleeping, yet the key lies precisely in that sleep is not a luxury but a necessity, or put in other terms is not an option but an actual need much in the same measure like diet and exercise are. Although individuals may condition their bodies to sleep only a few hours a day through their internal biological clock, the outcomes in the long term will negatively affect different aspects of a person’s life. For this reason, and because sleep seems to be required for survival, getting a good night sleep can mean the difference between performing well and falling asleep while at school or work.

When we scrimp on the amount of sleep we need, even if we only cut an hour, we develop a “sleep debt,” which is defined as the “accumulated sleep that is lost to poor sleep habits, sickness, awakenings due to environmental factors or other causes.” Now, if that sleep debt becomes too large, it can lead to sleepiness during the times at which we should be awake and alert, and even if we don’t feel sleepy, the product of the sleep debt will inevitably get in the way of our every day doings and our ability to function. In addition, sleep researchers confirm that individuals can’t regain sleep lost throughout the week by increasing the amount of sleep hours on the weekends; doing this will only interrupt our sleeping patterns and our body’s circadian rhythm, which is an internal 24-hour cycle that takes place in the organism to control different physiological processes and functions.

Furthermore, the circadian rhythm is influenced by daylight in such a way that we naturally tend to get sleepy at night when it’s dark and are energetic during the day when there’s light. Since our body’s functions change during day and nighttime, the circadian rhythm regulates them by ensuring the appropriate levels of each occur at the times they are supposed to. Brain tissue regenerates and memory is consolidated during night sleep, which makes developing an adequate sleeping routine extremely important.

To enhance our sleeping habits it helps to maintain standard sleep and wake schedules so that our bodies can become used to a regular waking and bedtime. In addition, avoiding alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, and heavy meals before sleep and during the day as well as eliminating cigarettes near bedtime or during the night, getting regular exercise and improving on the control of the sleep environment such as light, noise, temperature, pets, sleeping surface and sleeping partners can all help in standardizing sleep in a way that ensures we’re getting enough of it for optimal performance. Even though the exact reasons for sleep remain a mystery, many of the body’s major organs and systems continue to work actively during sleep, which makes this process so important for our minds and bodies. The sleeping brain is not a resting brain and the range of activities of it is central in regulating physical functions, revitalizing the body, and enhancing thought processes when awake, so that third of our lives that we should spend sleeping has a dramatic effect on the other two thirds.

As a shift worker, my brother used to be forced to sleep during the day while both the activities taking place around him and his circadian rhythm hinted at being awake. Although he was only on such schedule for 2 months, his body developed poor sleeping habits that remained long after he went back to working regular daytime hours and that still stay put to this day. What began as a “perfect excuse” to stay awake during the night has now become his new lifestyle. He is a smoker who gets very little if any sleep. He works only 4 days a week out of which 3 of them are 12-hour shifts. He leaves at 9:45am and gets back at around 11:15pm, but he doesn’t go to bed until 5 or 6 in the morning. He only gets a couple hours sleep for most of the week except for his days off when we have to wake him up at around 2pm for lunch.

He is moody most of the times and extremely irritable; to the point where any and every single subject has become a taboo topic to talk about around him since he gets aggressive and angry no matter what’s being said or how. He also tends to eat once or twice during the night but unlike the characteristic signs of most common sleep disorders, he hasn’t gained any weight whatsoever. He seems to forget that there are other people living around him as he speaks loud on the phone at 4am in the morning, as though it was completely normal, while interrupting my sleep. Sometimes he blasts the speakers with resounding music when everything else is silent and everyone else is trying to rest. He drinks lots of water and simply has a completely upside down routine that not only is affecting him but also affecting those around him to some extent.

I don’t know if any or all of the previous signs mean that my brother has some kind of sleep disorder, but it looks to me like he does. My parents insist to him on going to bed earlier and normalizing his schedule but he says he isn’t sleepy when the night falls, but of course he isn’t if he sleeps during the day.

Remember that sleep is one of life’s most basic activities and a necessity for the normal functioning of individuals “without which the body cannot make do for very long any more than it can without food or water. Deprived, it will suffer; and, in its efforts to restore the homeostatic balance of sleep and waking, it will make its demands imperative!” Sleep matters; so take time for it.

Image by: Hilary Quinn @ Stock.Xchng

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Posted by on February 25, 2007 in biology, brain, disease, dreams, health, sleep


An Early Diagnosis

Characterized by the slow, progressive and irreversible degeneration of brain cells, Alzheimer’s disease (AD), also known as “pre-senile dementia,” is an illness that affects the elderly and results in the loss of memory, confusion and changes in personality. In the most advanced stages of this illness, patients progressively lose the ability to perform everyday activities and radical language problems as well as behavioral changes; disorientation and hallucination signs start to appear. At some point, patients may also lose the ability to recognize people. Poor or decreased judgment, problems with keeping track of things, and mood swings are also common signs of this disease. This illness not only leads to severe dementia of the most common type, but also to the inevitable death of the patient. Research demonstrates that “Alzheimer’s disease first affects parts of the brain controlling memory and thinking. As it advances, it kills cells elsewhere in the brain. Eventually, if the patient has no other serious illness, the loss of brain function will prove fatal.”

The Alzheimer’s disease has three main stages each of which bears its own symptoms. During the mild or early stage, patients are likely to suffer slight behavioral changes embodied in the asking of repetitive questions, irritability, short-term memory loss, difficulty to learn new things, and loss or misplacement of things among others; this stage usually lasts from 2 to 4 years although this period may vary from patient to patient. During the moderate or middle stage, which may last up to 10 years, patients can have trouble recognizing familiar people or objects, tell stories repeatedly, and need help in carrying out daily activities. Confusion, anxiety and mistrust are also common during this stage and the symptoms progressively get worse with the pass of time. Finally, during the severe or late stage of this disease, which may last from 1 to 3 years, the abilities to walk and perform simple tasks are completely lost, and patients typically lose their appetite, speak in a mumbling way, and display severe sings of disorientation to time and place. Many patients are confined to their beds during this stage, and they typically need assistance 24 hours a day. Despite the most characteristic symptoms of each stage, AD patients are affected differently by senile dementia. No symptoms are likely to develop in two patients in the same way and the degree to which each patient experiences symptoms from each phase and the illness progresses into the different stages may also vary.

AD is named after the German neuropathologist and neuroscientist Alois Alzheimer, who described the signs of this illness by the first time during the early 1900s after discovering fiber tangles and abnormal plaques in the brain tissue of a deceased patient. Some of the risk factors associated with AD relate to age, education, alcohol consumption and injuries in the head. It is believed that genetics may also play a role in the development of AD since certain gene mutations can increase the likelihood of suffering from this illness. Some other causes linked to this disease include diabetes, exposure to some kinds of metals and other environmental factors, high blood pressure and high levels of cholesterol. Reasonable diagnoses to Alzheimer’s are usually preceded by a complete analysis of a patient’s clinical history often backed up by a neuropsychological examination. Different memory tests, brain scans, physical and psychological assessments can also be performed, but no conclusive medical examinations are available to accurately diagnose this disease before the patient’s death. A 100% accurate Alzheimer’s diagnosis requires a thorough check of brain tissue that can only be performed during an autopsy. As a result, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is primarily based on the presence of characteristic signs and the absence of alternative conclusions that may have been ruled out during the examination period.

One of the most important actions to take during an Alzheimer’s analysis is to interview family, friends or caregivers since patients tend to minimize their symptoms. Although assessment tests may not readily assert on the presence of AD, they may be useful in distinguishing the presence and severity of dementia according to the patient’s cognitive abilities. Over one hundred years since Alzheimer’s disease was first discovered, experts are still struggling to find a cure for it, and although there currently isn’t any, detecting early symptoms of this illness will enable caregivers to be better prepared to cope with the progression of this pathology, provide patients and their families with the opportunity of making decisions about the future while patients still have the ability to do so, and decrease the anxieties caused by unknown health problems. In addition, the chances of benefiting from treatment of the disease when the latter is diagnosed in advance also increase.

Lifestyle modifications, sexual-hormone administration, vaccines, a good level of physical exercise, and a diet low in fat and rich in food supplements are measures that may all prevent and reduce the likelihood of suffering from this disease. In addition, several drug and non-drug treatments are available to help with specific behavioral and cognitive symptoms characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, it has been recently asserted that fair amounts of mental stimulation can have a dramatic effect in preventing AD. For this reason, people who are educated and constantly exercise the mind can be better protected against the development of this and other mental diseases.

During recent years there has been a major outgrowth of Alzheimer’s disease, and it is estimated that this pathology currently affects nearly 13.5M people around the world. This number is expected to reach from 36 to 81M by the year 2050; consequently, scientists keep working hard on their quest to find a cure for this illness that represents a significant challenge harming public health. In addition to the great number of people that this malady affects, it represents one of the main leading causes of death in the U.S. and one of the most costly diseases due to the different direct and indirect outlays involved in both the professional or family care that patients suffering from AD require. The average age of AD patients is 65 although some cases of early or late Alzheimer’s can also happen. Nonetheless, the risk of suffering from this illness is directly proportional to the age of the patient. Patients who have been diagnosed with AD can usually live anywhere from 6 to 20 years although the average is 8.

Alzheimer’s-like symptoms?
My grandma is 80 years old today, and although she has not being diagnosed with AD had a sister who did and passed away because of this disease. My grandma recently suffered a heart attack and survived after catheters were inserted in three of her blood vessels, one of which had a 99% obstruction. She was basically at the brink of death although she is strong for her age and has always been a healthy person. Nevertheless, her heart condition, age and the fact that a close relative had Alzheimer’s, all of which represent risk factors, may increase her likelihood of suffering from this disease.

As we grow older, some signs of memory loss are evident, but to which extent are they normal? How can we be sure of the normality of forgetting names, places and things? I do not know where the dividing line is, but my dad is sure that my grandmother has some degree of AD, and as small as it can be it’s still there. My grandma typically confuses her grandchildren’s names. She calls me my cousins’ names and she calls my cousins my name. She has been doing this for a while now although we have never given too much importance to it, as she seems to know who we are and just be confused sometimes with our names. Could this be a sign of normal forgetfulness or is it a sign of AD? She forgets who famous people that she used to know are and confuses them. She has a tendency to repeating the same story several times even during the same day and to the same person. Sometimes she misplaces things although it hasn’t gotten to the point where she puts clothes in the fridge or perishable food in the closet. Could these still be early AD warning signs?

At occasions, she loses track of what she was going to do or say although this is something that happens to everyone; it is therefore hard to determine whether it could be considered a clear AD symptom. Some problems with finding the words to speak are also obvious in her case although it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. She tends to depend a lot on others, as she doesn’t feel like going out unless we do so or doing things that she used to do by herself. She spends lots of hours watching TV, as she can’t find great pleasure in reading, writing or performing other activities to keep herself distracted and busy. She is likely to confuse and forget days, dates and places. For instance, she recently had a doctor’s appoint for a follow-up check and she confused the date and the day of the appointment. She went to the doctor thinking she had an appointment on that day only to discover that it was on the day before and that she had missed it.

She seems to be obsessed by money and how much she spends, and she keeps track of every single penny she pays. Could this be simply a sign of how organized she is? I can’t myself remember what I’ve spent my money on unless I keep a log, so sometimes we think this indication is only normal. She can’t seem to retain new information for long, and she can’t seem to remember new names, faces and processes involving steps for long despite the many times we repeat and explain things to her or the many times she sees people. These and the previous few signs apparently point to the normal course of aging since none of the indicators seem to be severe, but we can’t seem to discard the possibility that maybe she has an extremely mild case of AD that has progressed so slowly that we have become used to atypical changes in her behavior in such a way that the previous noticeable signs now seem to be ordinary and just another part of her aging process.

Even though the lack of harsh symptoms could point to the normality of her forgetfulness and apparent changes in behavior, the frequency of some of these signs is alarming. Does the fact that the signs are not severe mean that she could be suffering from some other related disease or from no disease at all even though these signs are constant and recurrent? She ha snot displayed any to her noticeable changes that could lead us to believe she has this disease, but the few indicators we’ve seen are enough as we know how she used to be and how she is now. The question remains to be answered as no medical assessments regarding AD have been performed on her, but to us who are the people living with her, the uncertainty and concern increases everyday as she seems to have mentally deteriorated a lot in the past few years, and as these signs seem to get worse as days go by.

Although the effects of AD in the brain affecting memory, intelligence, judgment, and speech can’t be reversed, some of the risk factors causing AD can’t be controlled and no cures have yet been found to prevent and stop the progression of this illness, a healthy diet and lifestyle, and a constant stimulation of the brain can have a great impact on reducing the risk of suffering AD later on in our lives. Even though not enough is yet known about this disease and more research is still needed to cover the gray areas, raising our awareness about this disease and becoming active participants in the care of our health. It is also important to mention that AD is not a part of the normal aging of people but rather a fatal disease that severely and progressively damages the brain. Do not take health for granted and do not dismiss potential AD signs that could give you a chance of extending the life of a loved one if detected early.

Image by: Paulus Rusyanto @ Free-Stock Photos

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Posted by on February 11, 2007 in AD, alzheimer's, brain, disease

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