Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia. Dementia is a word that doctors use to describe a wide range of symptoms linked to physical and functional changes in the brain. Dementia usually affects a person’s memory, thinking abilities, and behavior. These mental changes make it hard for a person who has dementia to care for him- or herself.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but many other things can also cause dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is common in people older than 65 years of age. About 1 out of every 8 people who are 65 years of age or older have the disease. Nearly half of people 85 years of age and older have Alzheimer’s.
People who are younger than 65 years of age can also have Alzheimer’s disease. This is called early onset Alzheimer’s. Early onset Alzheimer’s is not very common. Approximately 200,000 people in the United States have early onset Alzheimer’s.
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“Progressive” means that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease usually start slowly and are mild, then get worse over time. The process of symptoms getting worse over time is called “cognitive decline.” In the late stages of the disease, a person who has Alzheimer’s is no longer able to communicate and depends entirely on other people for care.
It’s different for each person. Alzheimer’s disease is the fifth leading cause of death for Americans older than 65 years of age and the sixth leading cause of death for all people in the United States. Most people live 4 to 8 years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Some live with the disease for up to 20 years.
The Alzheimer’s Association has identified 10 warning signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (see the list below). It’s important to remember that every person is different and may not have all or even most of these warning signs. Talk to your family doctor if you notice 1 or more of these signs in yourself or a loved one.
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease. It appears that Alzheimer’s disease develops when clumps of abnormal proteins grow in the brain. This growth likely begins with a series of many small changes in the brain that start long before any symptoms are noticeable. Over time, these changes add up. Eventually, brain cells become damaged and die.
The risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease include the following:
Alzheimer’s disease also appears to be more common in women than in men. Nearly two-thirds of people who have Alzheimer’s disease are women.
If you are worried that you or a loved one might have some of the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, talk to your family doctor right away. Getting an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s will help you get treatment earlier and will give you time to address questions of care, finances, and legal issues with your family.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease may take some time. There is no test that can tell your doctor whether you have Alzheimer’s disease. So, to make sure your doctor has plenty of information to help determine the cause of your symptoms, he or she may:
Based on this information, your doctor can almost always tell whether you have dementia. Your doctor can tell whether Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of your dementia about 90% of the time. But Alzheimer’s disease can only be diagnosed with 100% accuracy after death, when the brain is examined under a microscope. The brain of a person who had Alzheimer’s disease will show very distinct changes that only happen when Alzheimer’s is the cause of dementia.
No, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, treatment may focus on the following:
The different medicines your doctor may prescribe to treat Alzheimer’s disease symptoms are listed below. It’s important to remember that these medicines do not stop the disease. They may not work for every person or may help for only a short time.
Clinical trials are research studies that help doctors and scientists determine whether a new drug or treatment is safe and effective. During a clinical trial, patients volunteer to receive the new treatment and give the researchers permission to study them. Right now, researchers are trying hard to find new ways to treat or cure Alzheimer’s disease. If you think you might want to volunteer to be part of a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s disease treatments, talk to your family doctor.
Drugs don’t always help relieve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Non-drug treatments for a person who has Alzheimer’s disease often include managing your loved one’s environment and establishing a routine to help reduce stress and anxiety. Read “Caring for a Relative Who Has Dementia” to learn more.
Complications of Alzheimer’s disease usually are a result of the changes that take place in the brain as the disease progresses. These changes can cause additional health problems, including:
If you think that a loved one might be experiencing any of the complications listed above, talk to your loved one’s doctor. He or she can provide medicine or other treatments to help keep your loved one comfortable.
2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures (PDF) by Alzheimer’s Association ( April 01, 2012, http://www.alz.org/downloads/Facts_Figures_2011.pdf)
BrightFocus Foundation. Alzheimer’s Disease Research by BrightFocus Foundation ( April 01, 2012, http://www.brightfocus.org/alzheimers/)
National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center. About Alzheimer’s by National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center ( April 01, 2012, http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers)
U.S. National Library of Medicine, PubMed Health. Alzheimer’s Disease by U.S. National Library of Medicine, PubMed Health ( April 01, 2012, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001767/)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff