Alzheimer’s disease is an illness of the brain. It causes large numbers of nerve cells in the brain to die. This affects a person's ability to remember and think clearly. Doctors don’t know what causes the disease. They do know that it usually begins after age 60, and nearly half of people age 85 and older may have Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is not a normal part of aging.
The disease often starts slowly. In fact, some people don’t know they have Alzheimer’s disease, blaming their forgetfulness on old age. Over time, memory problems get much worse as the disease progresses.
People with Alzheimer’s disease lose the ability to drive a car, cook a meal, or even read a newspaper. They may get lost easily and find even simple things confusing. Some people become worried, angry, or violent. At some point, people with Alzheimer’s disease may need someone to take care of all their needs (feeding, bathing, etc.) at home with a caregiver or in a nursing home.
Although every case of Alzheimer's disease is different, experts have identified common warning signs of this disease. It is important to look for signs that might indicate Alzheimer's disease versus basic forgetfulness. With Alzheimer's disease, these symptoms gradually increase and become more persistent.
Typical warning signs include:
Memory loss, especially of recent events, names, placement of objects, and other new information
Confusion about time and place
Struggling to complete familiar actions, such as brushing teeth or getting dressed
Trouble finding the appropriate words, completing sentences, and following directions and conversations
Poor judgment when making decisions
Changes in mood and personality, such as increased suspicion, rapid and persistent mood swings, withdrawal, and disinterest in usual activities
Difficulty with complex mental assignments, such as balancing a checkbook or other tasks involving numbers
Experienced clinicians can accurately diagnose dementia 90% of the time.
Accurate diagnosis is critical. Some conditions that cause symptoms of dementia, such as hormone imbalance, vitamin deficiency and infections, can be reversed. For irreversible dementias, treatment options vary depending on the disease.
Obtaining a proper diagnosis involves consulting with a healthcare professional who is an expert in dementia, and communicating symptoms and experienced in testing.
Diagnostic tools: include a complete medical history; blood, urine or other medical tests; neuropsychological tests that measure memory, problem solving, attention, and language; and brain scans.
Individuals with clinically diagnosed dementia have clear cognitive loss in two or more intellectual domains, such as amnesia (loss of memory) and aphasia (inability to communicate effectively), but almost all individuals with Alzheimer's disease demonstrate short-term memory impairment.
Other types of dementia may begin with a slow loss of memory function; however, a careful clinical evaluation will usually provide information that suggests dementia other than Alzheimer's disease.
Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease.
Researchers are continually testing the effectiveness of various drug therapies that will control symptoms; slow, reduce and/or reverse mental and behavioral symptoms; and prevent or halt the disease.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications known as cholinesterase inhibitors: donepezil hydrochloride (Aricept), approved for all stages of Alzheimer's disease; rivastigmine (Exelon), approved in pill and patch form for mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease; and galantamine hydrobromide (Razadyne), approved for mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. These drugs inhibit the enzyme that breaks down the brain chemical acetylcholine, and thereby may help slow the worsening of symptoms.
The FDA has approved memantine HCI (Namenda) for the treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer's disease, which may help slow the worsening of symptoms.