What is Alzheimers disease?
First described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906, Alzheimers disease (pronounced Alts-hi-merz) is a degenerative brain disease that usually begins gradually, causing a person to forget recent events or familiar tasks. How rapidly it advances varies from person to person, but the brain disease eventually causes confusion, personality and behavior changes, and impaired judgment. Communication becomes difficult as the affected person struggles to find words, finish thoughts, or follow directions. Eventually, most people with Alzheimers disease become unable to care for themselves.
What is dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe the loss of cognitive or intellectual function. Many conditions can cause dementia. Dementia related to depression, drug interactions, and thyroid and other problems may be reversible if detected early. Thats one of the reasons its important to obtain a professional assessment, so that the actual cause can be identified and proper care provided. Several other diseases also cause dementia, such as Parkinsons, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Huntingtons, and multi-infarct or vascular disease, caused by multiple strokes in the brain.
Isn't memory loss a natural part of aging?
Yes and no. Many healthy individuals are less able to remember certain kinds of information as they get older. But the symptoms of Alzheimers disease involve more than simple lapses in memory. People with Alzheimers experience difficulties in communicating, learning, thinking, and reasoning that can have an impact on a persons work and social and family life. Alzheimers is a disease that destroys brain cells which is not a normal part of aging.
How many people are affected by Alzheimers disease?
One in 10 persons over 65 and nearly half of those over 85 have Alzheimers disease. Today, four million Americans have Alzheimers disease. Unless a cure or prevention is found, that number will jump to 14 million by the year 2050. Worldwide, it is estimated that 22 million individuals will develop Alzheimers disease by the year 2025. Caregivers are affected by this disease, too. In a national survey, 19 million Americans said they have a family member with Alzheimers disease, and 37 million said they knew someone with the disease.
What are the warning signs?
The Alzheimers Association has developed a list of warning signs that include common symptoms of Alzheimers disease (some also apply to other dementias). Individuals who exhibit several of these symptoms should see a physician for a complete examination.
1. Memory loss that affects job skills. Its normal to occasionally forget an assignment, deadline, or colleagues name, but frequent forgetfulness or unexplainable confusion at home or in the workplace may signal that somethings wrong.
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks. Busy people get distracted from time to time. For example, you might leave something on the stove too long or not remember to serve part of a meal. People with Alzheimers might prepare a meal and not only forget to serve it but also forget they made it.
3. Problems with language. Everyone has trouble finding the right word sometimes, but a person with Alzheimers disease may forget simple words or substitute inappropriate words, making his or her sentences difficult to understand.
4. Disorientation to time and place. Its normal to momentarily forget the day of the week or what you need from the store. But people with Alzheimers disease can become lost on their own street, not knowing where they are, how they got there, or how to get back home.
5. Poor or decreased judgment. Choosing not to bring a sweater or coat along on a chilly night is a common mistake. A person with Alzheimers, however, may dress inappropriately in more noticeable ways, wearing a bathrobe to the store or several blouses on a hot day.
6. Problems with abstract thinking. Balancing a checkbook can be challenging for many people, but for someone with Alzheimers, recognizing numbers or performing basic calculations may be impossible.
7. Misplacing things. Everyone temporarily misplaces a wallet or keys from time to time. A person with Alzheimers disease may put these and other items in inappropriate places such as an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl and then not recall how they got there.
8. Changes in mood or behavior. Everyone experiences a broad range of emotions its part of being human. People with Alzheimers tend to exhibit more rapid mood swings for no apparent reason.
9. Changes in personality. Peoples personalities may change somewhat as they age. But a person with Alzheimers can change dramatically, either suddenly or over a period of time. Someone who is generally easygoing may become angry, suspicious, or fearful.
10. Loss of initiative. Its normal to tire of housework, business activities, or social obligations, but most people retain or eventually regain their interest. A person with Alzheimers disease may remain uninterested and uninvolved in many or all of his usual pursuits.
What causes Alzheimers disease?
Scientists still are not certain. Age and family history have been identified as potential risk factors. Researchers are exploring the role of genetics in the development of Alzheimers, but most agree the disease is likely caused by a variety of factors. Each year, scientists are uncovering important new clues about potential causes of the disease, which is helping to generate more accurate diagnostic tests and better treatment options for affected individuals.
How is Alzheimers disease diagnosed?
There is no single, comprehensive diagnostic test for Alzheimers disease. Instead, physicians or other specialists rule out other conditions through a process of elimination. They usually conduct physical, psychological, and neurological exams and take a thorough medical history. A diagnosis of probable Alzheimers disease can be obtained through evaluation with approximately 90 percent accuracy. The only way to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimers disease is through autopsy.
How does Alzheimers disease progress?
Alzheimers disease causes the formation of abnormal structures in the brain called plaques and tangles. As they accumulate in affected individuals, nerve cell connections are reduced. Areas of the brain that influence short-term memory tend to be affected first. Later, the disease works its way into sections of the brain that control other intellectual and physical functions.
Alzheimers disease affects people in different ways, making it difficult for medical professionals to predict how an individuals disease will progress. Some experts classify the disease by stage (early, middle, and late). But specific behaviors and how long they last vary greatly, even within each stage of the disease.
As more is learned about the progression of the disease, new assessment scales are being developed to help physicians track, predict, and treat symptoms of Alzheimers disease.
Does Alzheimers disease run in families?
The evidence is not clear. Cases where several members of a single family have been diagnosed with Alzheimers are rare (except in families who have a history of early-onset Alzheimers, a form of the disease that typically strikes middle-aged members of the same family). Much more common is the situation where a single family member is diagnosed with Alzheimers disease late in life.
Can Alzheimers disease occur in younger adults?
Yes, though less frequently. The disease can occur in people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. However, most people diagnosed with Alzheimers are older than 65. The early onset form of the disease that strikes younger people accounts for less than 10 percent of all reported cases. Scientists believe this variation of the disease may be genetically transmitted across multiple generations of the same family.
What treatment is available?
There is no medical treatment currently available to cure or stop the progression of Alzheimers disease. Four FDA-approved drugs may temporarily relieve some symptoms of the disease.