What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating condition affecting more than 6 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 12.7 million.

The Alzheimer’s Association also says 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

It’s important to understand just what Alzheimer’s disease is, how it differs from dementia, its symptoms and how to get support when facing this difficult diagnosis.

What Are the Facts About Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that destroys a patient’s memory and thinking ability, and eventually, their ability to carry out simple tasks. It isn’t isn’t a normal part of aging, however. Although the greatest risk factor seems to be age – the majority of those with Alzheimer’s are 65 or older – it can affect those under 65.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means it gradually worsens over time. It can begin in its early stages with mild memory loss, but in later stages, those with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to converse and respond to their environment. 

>> Read “Dementia and Alzheimer’s: Words and Terms to Know

What Is the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Dementia refers to any decline in mental ability – such as memory, reasoning or other thinking skills – that affects everyday life. Dementia exists in many forms, such as Lewy body dementia, posterior cortical dementia, vascular dementia and others. 

>> Read “Understanding the Different Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s is a specific disease caused by changes in the brain. It leads to symptoms of dementia. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60-80% of all cases of dementia.

What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

Changes in the brain are linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The disease seems to interfere with the normal workings of the brain, causing damage that leads to irreversible changes in the brain.

Two abnormal brain structures called plaques and tangles are implicated in the degeneration of the brain.

  • Plaques – These are deposits of a protein called beta-amyloid. These begin to build up in the spaces between the brain’s nerve cells.
  • Tangles – These structures are twisted fibers of another protein, called tau. These tangles build up inside brain cells.

Although the process is unknown, scientists believe that plaques and tangles interfere with the communication among nerve cells, disrupting normal processes. The abnormalities seem to begin in the memory centers of the brain before spreading to other areas.

As these nerve cells are destroyed, a patient’s memory begins to fail, personality changes and difficulties carrying out daily symptoms increase, all symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Other contributing factors may be genetics, and other health conditions such as diabetes, head injury, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and stroke.

What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease begins to appear as problems, according to the National Institutes of Health

Some people will display mild cognitive impairment (MCI). These memory problems are normal for older people, but these symptoms are minor and don’t interfere with everyday life. However, older people that have MCI appear to have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Among the first symptoms are:

  • Decline in cognition
  • Vision and spatial issues
  • Impaired reasoning or judgment

People developing Alzheimer’s may have trouble driving, may be disoriented, may be confused by time or place, experience mood or behavior changes, and find simple tasks overwhelming. Over time, they may become worried, angry or violent.

>> Read “Detecting Alzheimer’s Symptoms & Stages

Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s by a variety of methods and using different tools. Among the steps are:

  • Interviewing the patient or family and friends about health, medicines taken, diet, medical issues, cognitive difficulties and changes in behavior or personality.
  • Conducting tests of attention, counting, language, memory and problem solving.
  • Carrying out standard medical tests, such as blood, urine and others.
  • Performing brain scans, such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET).

Tests may be repeated over time to track the progress of the disease. 

What Are the Treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease?

There is no current successful cure for Alzheimer’s, and because there are so many potential causes, there may never be one successful treatment or drug. 

Currently, a drug called aducanumab is being used to treat Alzheimer’s by reducing amyloid deposits in the brain. It is thought it might slow the progression of the disease, but hasn’t been shown to slow cognitive decline or dementia.

Doctors therefore focus on how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or to delay it, and on treating the symptoms. Drug therapies are being explored, as are such non-pharmaceutical approaches as cognitive training, diet, physical activity and other activities.

What Support Is Available for Alzheimer’s Patients and Caregivers?

People with Alzheimer’s, along with those who care for them, face daunting challenges. Care can have significant emotional, financial and physical costs. One-on-one care is needed, and Memory Care facilities may be necessary to provide the care needed of patients. 

>> Read “How to Support Aging Parents: A Guide for Adult Children

Here are some resources for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregiving families:

  • Alzheimer’s.gov – This is the portal for information and resources from across the federal government.
  • Alzheimer’s Association – This group leads efforts in Alzheimer’s advocacy, care, research and support.
  • Alzheimer’s Foundation – This organization provides education, services and support for people, families and caregivers.
  • Brain Health as You Age – From the Administration for Community Living, this document has more information about Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • National Institute on Aging – This national organization has information and resources on the common issues of aging.
  • NIA ADEAR Center – The NIA’s Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral Center offers information and print publications for caregivers, families and health professionals.
  • The National Library of Medicine – Here are other articles and resources on Alzheimer’s.
  • Us Against Alzheimer’s – This organization promotes advocacy and health.

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