Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and ultimately fatal brain disorder named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first noted it in 1906. Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cells to deteriorate and eventually die, causing the loss of cognitive functions, including memory, judgment and reasoning, as well as other functions.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a term used for loss of memory and other mental and intellectual abilities that are serious enough to interfere with daily life. Today, Alzheimer’s is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. As many as 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.

Plaques and Tangles Signify the Disease

The two most significant changes in the brain that identify Alzheimer’s are neuritic plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The plaques first appear near brain synapses. Deposits of a protein fragment called beta amyloid occupy the center of these plaques. Inside brain neurons, neurofibrillary tangles start to develop. The plaques and tangles form in predictable patterns, beginning in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or Computed Tomography (CT) can identify these plaques and tangles and confirm the presence of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that the dementia in Alzheimer’s patients is caused by the shrinkage and death of neurons and synaptic loss, brought on by a cascade of events that occur in the disease.

Another significant factor in Alzheimer’s disease is the greatly reduced presence of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, an important chemical for cognitive function. As acetylcholine production production decreases in the cortex and hippocampus, dementia becomes progressively worse.

Risk Factors & Onset

With each decade of adult life, the risk of getting Alzheimer’s increases. Although Alzheimer’s mostly affects older people, it can occur in people much younger. Genetic factors are known to play a role in less than 10% of cases. People with a family history of Alzheimer’s have a greater risk of the disease and some people inherit a gene that can cause early onset, before the age of 65.

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 include:

  • General confusion and disorientation to time and date
  • A decreasing inability to perform everyday tasks
  • Increasing 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 doctor 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. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, medications are available to alleviate symptoms. As researchers continue to make progress, it is hoped that future treatments will be available to stop the progression of the disease. Your doctor can keep you informed of the most up-to-date information on treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.