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What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Jun 28, 2022 / Geriatrics / Neurology

By Kate Williams, NP
Division of Neurology

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, an ideal time to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, including risk factors and how it is diagnosed and treated.

A progressive brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease is named for the German psychiatrist and neurologist Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first identified the disease in 1906. Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cells to deteriorate and eventually die, causing the loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, as well as other important cognitive functions.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a term used for loss of key mental and intellectual abilities that are serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. It is estimated that over 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.

Risk Factors Increase with Age

As we progress through each decade of life, the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease increases. Although the disease mostly affects older people, it can also occur in people much younger. Some people inherit a gene that can cause early onset, before the age of 65. If you have had a parent, brother or sister with Alzheimer’s you are at increased risk of developing the disease. Scientists believe that both heredity and environmental factors play a role in Alzheimer’s and it can begin in the brain many years before the onset of noticeable symptoms.

Plaques and Tangles Mark the Disease

Alzheimer’s disease causes identifiable changes in specific areas of the brain, including the development of plaques and tangles that prevent the brain from functioning normally. As the disease progresses, nerve cells die and the brain starts to shrink due to tissue loss. The progression of Alzheimer’s disease can vary greatly from person to person. On average, a person with Alzheimer’s lives four to eight years after diagnosis, but some people can live much longer.

Key Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

The first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is usually a loss of short-term memory, such as the forgetting of familiar names and places, appointments, and the names of everyday objects. Other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease you should be aware of include:

  • General confusion and disorientation to time and date
  • A decreasing ability to perform everyday tasks
  • Increased problems communicating
  • Repeating stories, words and questions
  • The inability to perform simple math such as balancing a checkbook
  • Personality changes including apathy, irritability, depression and anxiety
  • Problems eating and sleeping.
  • Wandering, paranoia and delusions

Your primary care provider can help diagnose the difference between normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease. A simple test to analyze memory and other skills can be given at the doctor’s office. Treatment can be provided by your primary care provider or a neurologist – a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system.

Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, medications are available that may partially alleviate symptoms, and active management of the disease can improve quality of life. As researchers continue to make progress, it is hoped that new treatments will become available to stop the progression of the disease. Researchers are also studying ways to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Your primary care provider can keep you informed of the most up-to-date information on Alzheimer’s disease. There are also valuable resources available at the Alzheimer’s Association website, www.alz.org, including information on care resources, ongoing research and clinical trials.

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