Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that causes gradual loss of memory, perception, language, reasoning, and the ability to care for oneself. Individuals have difficulty remembering, communicating and carrying out routine tasks; they often are confused and may wander. In the advanced stages, individuals typically fail to recognize their family members and are unable to perform daily activities, like bathing, eating and dressing; the disease eventually leads to death. It is estimated that more than five million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease; this number is expected to triple by mid-century. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by an accumulation of abnormal plaques, and tangles in the brain.
View this brief video from the National Institute on Aging
that illustrates the intricate mechanisms involved in the progression
of Alzheimer's disease in the brain.
Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease
Typical signs of Alzheimer’s disease include problems with memory and confusion. This can include forgetting names and phone numbers, getting lost while going to a familiar place, or wearing the wrong seasonal clothing for the weather outside.
If someone is exhibiting these symptoms, the person should check out his or her concerns with a healthcare professional. Awareness of these warning signs is not a substitute for a structured screening or consultation with a primary care provider.
Other symptoms include:
- Loss of short-term memory and eventually long-term memory.
- Inability to communicate effectively, including the loss of ability to speak and write.
- Inability to do pre-programmed motor tasks or to perform activities of daily living, such as brushing teeth and dressing. An individual may forget all motor skills learned during their development years.
- Not recognizing familiar people and objects.
- Personality changes can become evident in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Signs include irritability, apathy, withdrawal and isolation.
- Individuals may show symptoms of depression at any stage of the disease. Depression is treatable, even in the latter stages of Alzheimer's disease.
- Psychotic symptoms include hallucinations and delusions, which usually occur in the middle stage. Hallucinations and delusions can be very upsetting to the person with the disease. Common reactions are feelings of fear, anxiety and paranoia, as well as agitation, aggression and verbal outbursts.
- It is estimated that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer's disease.
- The incidence of the disease is rising in line with the aging population.
- Although Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging, the risk of developing the illness rises with advanced age. Current research from the National Institute on Aging indicates that the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease doubles every five years beyond age 65.
- As our population ages, the disease impacts a greater percentage of Americans. The number of people age 65 and older will more than double between 2010 and 2050 to 88.5 million or 20 percent of the population; likewise, those 85 and older will rise three-fold, to 19 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
- It is estimated that about a half million Americans younger than age 65 have some form of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. (This is referred to as young onset or early onset.)
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a general term that describes a group of symptoms related to the loss of multiple intellectual functions--such as loss of memory, judgment, language and complex motor skills---that interferes with daily living.
- Several diseases, including Alzheimer's disease, can cause dementia.
- Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia in persons over the age of 65. Clinicians diagnose Alzheimer’s disease as the cause of dementia in about 60 percent of individuals living with the disease.
- The other most common causes of dementia are vascular dementia, caused by stroke or blockage of blood supply, and dementia with Lewy bodies. Other types include alcohol dementia, caused by sustained use of alcohol; trauma dementia, caused by head injury; and a rare form of dementia, frontotemporal dementia.
- The clinical symptoms and the progression of dementia vary, depending on the type of disease causing it and the location and number of damaged brain cells. Some types progress slowly over years, while others may result in sudden loss of intellectual function.
- Each type of dementia is characterized by different pathologic, or structural, changes in the brain.
What Causes Alzheimer's Disease?
Right now the causes of Alzheimer's disease are still largely unknown. The biggest risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease is age; the vast majority of people with Alzheimer's disease are 65 years of age or older. However, there are people with the disease as young as in their thirties. Other risk factors are family history, or genetics, overproduction of toxic free-radicals, brain injury and inflammation, and Down's syndrome.
How Is Someone Diagnosed?
Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed with up to 90 percent accuracy. Clinicians diagnose probable Alzheimer's disease on the basis of information from the individual and interviews with family members, as well as a physical exam and results of neurological, psychological, radiological, and laboratory tests. However, a definitive diagnosis can only be made after the individual dies by examining the brain during an autopsy.
Is Alzheimer's Disease Hereditary?
Alzheimer's disease is classified as sporadic and familial. Sporadic means that symptoms begin after age 60 and familial means that the symptoms begin between age 30 and 60.
Familial Alzheimer's disease is not as common as sporadic Alzheimer’s disease. Only 10 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease have familial Alzheimer’s disease. It is caused by genetic mutations.
If you have family members with either familial or sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, you are still not guaranteed to become ill.
How is Alzheimer's Disease Treated?Currently there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, although research for a cure and effective treatments is ongoing. Several pharmaceutical drugs are available to treat individuals in the early, moderate and severe stages of the disease. These medications may help slow the progression of symptoms of the disease. Research shows that these medical treatments are most effective when started early in the disease process.
Experts also suggest that it helps if individuals with Alzheimer's disease live a healthy lifestyle, including good nutrition, physical exercise, socialization and activities to stimulate the brain, such as listening to music and simple math exercises.
Can People Live at Home?
Alzheimer's disease is progressive and the illness worsens over time. The majority of people with the disease do live at home, and not in care facilities. However, sometimes individuals may need to move in with a relative or to a residence where care is provided 24 hours a day. Some people move to assisted living residences and, as the disease progresses, others move to special dementia units within assisted living facilities or to nursing homes.
Assisted living residences are like large private homes where those who are ill can have help with bathing, dressing, and taking medications. The staff prepares all meals and lead many activities.
Nursing homes are medical facilities. They assist those who need more physical assistance and may need 24 hour medical care. They assist with bathing, dressing, prepare all meals and often have lots of activities and entertainment.
Not all people with Alzheimer's disease move to residences. Many live with their families who care for them. Some caregivers have some assistance of hired help.
Can People Die from Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease stretches from two to twenty years, and individuals live on average for eight to ten years from diagnosis. Alzheimer's disease is among the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. However, an individual with Alzheimer's disease often dies from an additional illness like pneumonia.
What Can I Do to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease?
A growing body of research indicates that healthy lifestyles or lifestyle changes may help reduce risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
Although Alzheimer's disease primarily affects people aged 65+, and, less often, individuals under age 65, it is still important to optimize the health of your brain cells throughout your life. This may help reduce risk factors for Alzheimer's disease when you get older.
A healthy lifestyle includes:
- Eating right
- Not smoking
- Limiting alcohol
- Socializing stress
- Keeping your brain stimulated
For more information about a healthy lifestyle, visit www.alzprevention.org.
How Did Alzheimer's Disease Get its Name?
The origin of the term Alzheimer's disease dates back to 1906 when Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German physician, presented a case history before a medical meeting of a 51-year-old female who suffered from a rare brain disorder. His autopsy of the woman's brain identified the plaques and tangles that today characterize Alzheimer's disease.
Where Can I Learn More?
Alzheimer's Foundation of America (www.alzfdn.org)
Alzheimer's Disease Education & Referral Center (www.alzheimers.org)
Books to Read:
- “Everything You Need To Know When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer’s disease” by Joyce Hinnefeld
- “The Stranger I Call Grandma” by Swanee Ballmann
- “Alzheimer’s disease” by William Check
- “Horse Whispers in the Air” by Dandi Daley Mackall
- “Coping When A Grandparent Has Alzheimer’s disease” by Beth Wilkinson