Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease and the most common cause of dementia.
Dementia is characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving and other cognitive skills that affects a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. This decline occurs because nerve cells (neurons) in parts of the brain involved in cognitive function have been damaged or destroyed.
In Alzheimer’s disease, the damage and destruction of neurons eventually affect other parts of the brain, including those that enable a person to carry out basic bodily functions such as walking and swallowing. People in the final stages of the disease are bed-bound and require around-the-clock care. Alzheimer’s disease is ultimately fatal.
The NeuroCognitive Institute is an active site of clinical trials for Alzheimer’s Disease. Clinical trials are the best way for researchers to find new ways to detect, slow, treat and hopefully someday prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more.
Alzheimer’s Disease vs Dementia
The words Alzheimer’s and dementia are often used interchangeably. In fact, dementia is a syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of the symptoms. When someone is told they have Alzheimer’s or dementia, it means they have significant memory problems as well as other cognitive and behavioral issues. Most of the time dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease was first identified more than 100 years ago, but 70 years passed before it was recognized as the most common cause of dementia, as well as a major cause of death. Not until then did Alzheimer’s disease become a significant area of research. Although the research that followed has revealed a great deal about Alzheimer’s, much is yet to be discovered about the precise biological changes that cause Alzheimer’s, why it progresses more quickly in some than in others, and how the disease can be prevented, slowed or stopped.
Researchers believe that early detection of Alzheimer’s will be key to preventing, slowing and stopping the disease. The last 10 years have seen tremendous growth in research on early detection. This research spurred the 2011 publication of new diagnostic criteria and guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease. According to the criteria, the brain changes of Alzheimer’s begin before symptoms such as memory loss appear, whereas earlier criteria require memory loss and a decline in thinking abilities for an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to be made. Because scientific evaluation of some components of the new criteria is ongoing, “Alzheimer’s disease” in this report refers to the disease as defined by the earlier criteria.
Alzheimer’s disease symptoms vary among individuals. The most common initial symptom is a gradually worsening ability to remember new information. This occurs because the first neurons to be damaged and destroyed are usually in brain regions involved in forming new memories. As neurons in other parts of the brain are damaged and destroyed, individuals experience other difficulties.
The following are common symptoms of Alzheimer’s:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
- Challenges in planning or solving problems.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
- Confusion with time or place.
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
- New problems with words when speaking or writing.
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
- Decreased or poor judgment. • Withdrawal from work or social activities.
- Changes in mood and personality, including apathy and depression.
- Increased anxiety, agitation and sleep disturbances.
For more information about the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, visit alz.org/10signs.
The pace at which symptoms advance from mild to moderate to severe varies from person to person. As the disease progresses, cognitive and functional abilities decline. In the more advanced stages, people need help with basic activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, eating and using the bathroom; lose their ability to communicate; fail to recognize loved ones; and become bed-bound and reliant on around-the-clock care. When individuals have difficulty moving, they are more vulnerable to infections, including pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Alzheimer’s-related pneumonia is often a contributing factor to the death of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
No single, simple test exists to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, one’s physician, often with the help of a neurologist, will use a variety of approaches and tools to help make a diagnosis.
They include the following:
- Obtaining a medical and family history from the individual, including psychiatric history and history of cognitive and behavioral changes.
- Asking a family member or other person close to the individual to provide input about changes in thinking skills or behavior.
- Conducting cognitive tests and physical and neurologic examinations.
- Having the individual undergo blood tests and brain imaging to rule out other potential causes of dementia symptoms, such as a tumor or certain vitamin deficiencies.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s requires a careful and comprehensive medical evaluation. Although physicians can almost always determine if a person has dementia, it may be difficult to identify the exact cause. Several days or weeks may be needed for the patient to complete the required tests and examinations and for the physician to interpret the results and make a diagnosis.2017-facts2017_infographic
Sources: Visit the following websites to learn more.