Alzheimer's disease is a debilitating brain disorder that causes progressive memory loss, visual-spatial problems and personality and behavioral issues. The disease is the most common cause of dementia, an umbrella term that means a global malfunction of the brain that's used to describe a group of symptoms affecting intellectual and social abilities severe enough to hinder activities of daily living.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are often used interchangeably because the symptoms are so similar. But dementia is a set of symptoms, while Alzheimer’s describes what is causing the symptoms.
Some warning signs of Alzheimer’s include memory loss, difficulty completing familiar tasks, confusion of time and place, difficulty understanding spatial relationships and visual images, problems with language and writing, misplacing objects and inability to recover/retrace steps, withdrawal, decrease judgment and changes in mood or personality.
There are more than five million Americans affected by Alzheimer's disease; it is the sixth leading cause of death. The disease is unique to each individual, and it is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. that cannot be prevented, slowed or cured.
Alzheimer's disease was named after Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, who is credited with identifying the first published case of "presenile dementia" in 1906. His colleague, Emil Kraepelin, would later complete the studies and name the disease "Alzheimer's."
Biologically, plaques and tangles in the brain are the hallmark presentations of Alzheimer's disease. Plaques are deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid that build up in the spaces between nerve cells (outside the nerve cells) and tangles are twisted fibers of another protein called tau that build up inside the cells. As people age, plaques and tangles develop in the brain. People with Alzheimer's tend to develop these plaques and tangles far more and in a much more predictable pattern, starting with the areas of the brain important for memory. These plaques and tangles gradually cause the destruction of the nerve cells throughout the brain.
The greatest risk factor of Alzheimer's disease is increasing age. Family history and genetics can also play a role and increase the risk. Currently, there are several medications that may temporarily slow the rate of decline and ones which can assist those affected to maximize function and maintain independence for a period of time.
People who are experiencing short-term memory loss and other symptoms of this disorder should be evaluated by a physician. The physician will look at all the symptoms, medications, family history, and will conduct extensive interviews and assessments, along with laboratory testing with the individual. A neurological exam should be ordered, the most common being an MRI or CT scans.
Although the disease cannot be 100 percent confirmed until autopsy, with the range of testing and assessments, doctors can diagnose the disease with close accuracy.
Once Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed, the affected individual and caregiver should get educated about the disease, take actions for legal and financial planning, and find support and resources through programs offered by organizations, such as Alzheimer's Services, alzbr.org; Alzheimer's Association, alz.org; or the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, alzfdn.org, to name just a few.