Bob Barker died of Alzheimer's disease: What you should know about the brain disorder

Toronto-based behavioural neurologist Dr. Sharon Cohen says Alzheimer's disease is often misdiagnosed.

Legendary game show host Bob Barker, who hosted
Legendary game show host Bob Barker, who hosted "The Price is Right" for 35 years, died late August. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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Bob Barker's recent death shocked many people worldwide, and new details surrounding the legendary game host's health is news for many fans.

Known best for spending 35 years hosting "The Price is Right," the 99-year-old did not disclose his Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, which was made public in his death certificate on Tuesday.

First reported by TMZ, hypertension, hypothyroidism and hyperlipidemia were all listed as contributing factors to the television presenter's death.

Alzheimer's disease has been a cause of death for other well-known celebrities over time, including jazz legend Tony Bennett, former United States President Ronald Reagan and country singer Glen Campbell.

Dr. Sharon Cohen, a behavioural neurologist and director of the Toronto Memory Program, tells Yahoo Canada that it's a common disease that's often misdiagnosed.

But what exactly is the disease that's affecting millions of people worldwide? Read on to learn everything you should know about Alzheimer's disease.

What is Alzheimer's disease?

The Alzheimer Society of Canada describes Alzheimer's disease as a chronic neurodegenerative disease that destroys brain cells.

"Over many years, it causes impairment in memory, thinking and day-to-day function," Cohen says. "It is ultimately a fatal disease."

Being the most common form of dementia, the umbrella term for a set of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain, Alzheimer's disease is irreversible and not a normal part of aging. While dementia includes Alzheimer's disease, there are other conditions under that term, including vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, Huntington's disease and Parkinson's disease.

While Alzheimer's disease has been prevalent throughout history, it's only been recently identified as a prevalent and serious condition.

Alzheimer's disease is described in stages, and people become "more and more" dependent on others in the later stages, according to Cohen. While there are varying ways to denote those stages, there are generally three:

  • Early-stage Alzheimer's: A person can still function independently, but they may have issues like memory lapses, forgetting familiar words, misplacing everyday objects or forgetting information that was just read.

  • Middle-stage Alzheimer's: Typically the longest stage, a person in this stage may forget certain events, feel moody, experience confusion about their location and have difficulty controlling their bladder.

  • Late-stage Alzheimer's: This final stage presents severe symptoms, where a person may require around-the-clock care. They might also see changes in physical abilities and lose awareness of recent experiences or their surroundings.

Alzheimer's disease is most common in people older than age 65, but it's not impossible for younger people to develop the condition, too. (Photo via Getty Images)
Alzheimer's disease is most common in people older than age 65, but it's not impossible for younger people to develop the condition, too. (Photo via Getty Images)

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?

The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease worsen over time, and some researchers believe the disease process begins 10 years or more before the first symptoms appear.

"Memory is the hallmark first symptom, after the brain's already been dealing with the disease silently for awhile," Cohen says. "Other symptoms can be difficulty finding words when you're speaking, difficulty with way finding or people getting lost, people having difficulty making decisions, organizing themselves, planning."

Alzheimer's disease has 10 major warning signs, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada:

  1. Memory loss that affects everyday abilities

  2. Difficulty performing common tasks

  3. Language problems

  4. Disorientation in time and location

  5. Impaired judgement

  6. Problems with abstract thinking

  7. Misplacing objects

  8. Mood or behavioural changes

  9. Personality changes

  10. Loss of initiative

Who's most at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease most often occurs in older adults, typically people who are older than 65. However, the disease can still develop in people younger, in which it's often called younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

The Public Health Agency of Canada classifies dementia risk factors into two categories: Non-modifiable and modifiable risk factors.

Non-modifiable risk factors include aspects like age, family history and genetics. Sex is also included, where women are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease compared to men.

Cohen says people who have copies of the APOE4 gene, such as "Thor" actor Chris Hemsworth, have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Modifiable risk factors are those you can control, such as staying active, smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and managing conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.

Smoking and consuming alcohol are known risks for Alzheimer's disease. (Photo via Getty Images)
Smoking and consuming alcohol are known risks for Alzheimer's disease. (Photo via Getty Images)

What causes someone to die from Alzheimer's disease?

On average, a person living with Alzheimer's disease lives four to eight years after their diagnosis. However, some people can live as long as 20 years.

UCLA Health states the most common cause of death among people living with Alzheimer's disease is aspiration pneumonia. This is an infection of the lungs caused by inhaling saliva, food, liquid, vomit or small foreign objects into your respiratory tract.

How common is Alzheimer's disease?

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, there were roughly 597,000 people in the country living with dementia. Out of those people, nearly 62 per cent were women.

That number is expected to rise to 955,900 people by 2030. The society expects that number to grow to 1.7 million by 2050.

Cohen said the disease is often misdiagnosed and under-diagnosed.

"In the early stages, many people are just told, 'Oh this is normal aging,'" she says. "The first thing I would say to people is, if you're concerned that your memory is changing, get it checked out.

"If it is Alzheimer's, you don't want to ignore it because there are things that can be done."

She added that people who living with Alzheimer's disease are often fearful of coming forward.

"There's a lot of stigma with Alzheimer's, and that's unfortunate because it's nobodies fault that they developed this disease," Cohen says. "It's not that they did anything wrong to cause it — it's a common disease."

Cohen adds that around 10 per cent of people older than age 65 has the disease. That number grows to one in three people if they're older than 85 years old.

How is Alzheimer's disease treated?

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. But that doesn't mean people should forego seeking help.

"Diagnosing it early and accurately does a lot of things," Cohen says. "It gives people the opportunity to make decisions for themselves about how they want to lead the rest of their life. ... They can make the decisions for themselves without waiting until they're not able to."

There are currently four medications approved by Health Canada that can help with cognitive issues, such as language, thinking abilities, memory and movement. These include:

  • Aricept (Donepezil)

  • Exelon (Rivastigmine)

  • Reminyl ER (Galantamine)

  • Ebixa (Memantine)

The first three drug options are typically used to treat mild to moderate cases of Alzheimer's disease. for moderate to advanced cases, Donepezil or Memantine is often prescribed.

"There are over 140 drugs being actively investigated for their ability to slow down the disease or improve symptoms," Cohen adds. "Having that many medications in the drug development pipeline ... is very important and there are very tangible clinical trial opportunities for individuals."

Non-drug methods to treat Alzheimer's disease include methods like music therapy, aromatherapy, pet therapy and massage. However, there's a lack of research that confirms the effects of these treatments on people with Alzheimer's disease.

Moreover, practicing a brain-healthy lifestyle, which includes engaging in physical movement, social activities, challenging your brain and making healthy lifestyle choices, is essential to people living with dementia.

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