Alzheimer's and Dementia Information
What is Alzheimer's Disease?
Dementia is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. The most common form of dementia among older people is Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which initially involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. Although scientists are learning more every day, right now they still do not know what causes AD, and there is no cure.
AD is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain are considered signs of AD.
Scientists also have found other brain changes in people with AD. Nerve cells die in areas of the brain that are vital to memory and other mental abilities, and connections between nerve cells are disrupted. There also are lower levels of some of the chemicals in the brain that carry messages back and forth between nerve cells. AD may impair thinking and memory by disrupting these messages.
What is Dementia?
The term "dementia" describes a group of symptoms that are caused by changes in brain function. Dementia symptoms may include asking the same questions repeatedly; becoming lost in familiar places; being unable to follow directions; getting disoriented about time, people, and places; and neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition. People with dementia lose their abilities at different rates.
Dementia is caused by many conditions. Some conditions that cause dementia can be reversed, and others cannot. The two most common forms of dementia in older people are Alzheimer's Disease and multi-farct dementia (sometimes called vascular dementia). These types of dementia are irreversible, which means they cannot be cured.
Reversible conditions with symptoms of dementia can be caused by a high fever, dehydration, vitamin deficiency and poor nutrition, bad reactions to medicines, problems with the thyroid gland, or a minor head injury. Medical conditions like these can be serious and should be treated by a doctor as soon as possible.
Sometimes older people have emotional problems that can be mistaken for dementia. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored may be more common for older people facing retirement or coping with the death of a spouse, relative, or friend. Adapting to these changes leaves some people feeling confused or forgetful. Emotional problems can be eased by supportive friends and family, or by professional help from a doctor or counselor.
What Causes AD?
Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes AD. There probably is not one single cause, but several factors that affect each person differently. Age is the most important known risk factor for AD. The number of people with the disease doubles every 5 years beyond age 65.
Family history is another risk factor. Scientists believe that genetics may play a role in many AD cases. For example, early-onset familial AD, a rare form of AD that usually occurs between the ages of 30 and 60, is inherited. The more common form of AD is known as late-onset. It occurs later in life, and no obvious inheritance pattern is seen in most families. However, several risk factor genes may interact with each other and with non-genetic factors to cause the disease. The only risk factor gene identified so far for late-onset AD is a gene that makes one form of a protein called apolipoprotein E (ApoE). Everyone has ApoE, which helps carry cholesterol in the blood. Only about 15 percent of people have the form that increases the risk of AD. It is likely that other genes also may increase the risk of AD or protect against AD, but they remain to be discovered.
What are the Symptoms of AD?
AD begins slowly. At first, the only symptom may be mild forgetfulness, which can be confused with age-related memory change. Most people with mild forgetfulness do not have AD. In the early stage of AD, people may have trouble remembering recent events, activities, or the names of familiar people or things. They may not be able to solve simple math problems. Such difficulties may be a bother, but usually they are not serious enough to cause alarm.
Warning Signs You Should Know
- Your wife always misplaces her keys. But last Tuesday, she couldn't even remember what they were for.
- Your grandfather likes to take daily strolls around the neighborhood. But four times in the pastmonth he's gotten lost and couldn't find his way home without help from a neighbor.
- Your favorite uncle can't remember your name or the names of your husband or children.
The memory loss, confusion, and disorientation descried in these examples are the symptoms of demeting illness. The most common demeting illness is Alzheimer's disease.
Unfortunately, many people fail to recognize that these symptoms indicate something is wrong. They mistakenly assume that such behavior is a normal part of the aging process; it isn't. Or, symptoms may develop gradually and go unnoticed for a long time. Sometimes people refuse to act even when they know something's wrong.
It's important to see a physician when you recognize these symptoms. Only a physician can properly diagnose the person's condition, and sometimes symptoms are reversible. Even if the diagnosis is Alzheimer's disease, help is available to learn