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Alzheimer's Disease

Although scientists are learning more every day, right now they still do not know what causes Alzheimer's disease, and there is no cure. It is important to note, however, that Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of aging.

The disease usually begins after age 60, and risk goes up with age. While younger people also may get Alzheimer's disease, it is much less common.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease 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 Alzheimer's disease. In the early stages, 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.

However, as the disease goes on, symptoms are more easily noticed and become serious enough to cause people with Alzheimer's disease or their family members to seek medical help. Forgetfulness begins to interfere with daily activities. People in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease may forget how to do simple tasks like brushing their teeth or combing their hair. They can no longer think clearly. They can fail to recognize familiar people and places. They begin to have problems speaking, understanding, reading or writing. Later on, people with Alzheimer's disease may experience behavior changes and become anxious or aggressive or wander away from home. Eventually, patients need total care.

How is Alzheimer's disease diagnosed?

The only definite way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease is to find out whether there are plaques and tangles in brain tissue. To look at brain tissue, however, doctors usually must wait until they do an autopsy after a person dies. Therefore, doctors can only make a diagnosis of "possible" or "probable" Alzheimer's disease while the person is still alive.

The tools used to diagnose "probable" Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Questions about the person's general health, past medical problems and ability to carry out daily activities
  • Tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting and language
  • Medical tests – such as tests of blood, urine or spinal fluid
  • Brain scans

Sometimes these test results help the doctor find other possible causes of the person's symptoms. For example, thyroid problems, drug reactions, depression, brain tumors and blood vessel disease in the brain can cause Alzheimer's disease-like symptoms. Some of these other conditions can be treated successfully.

How is Alzheimer's disease treated?

Alzheimer's disease is a slow disease, starting with mild memory problems and ending with severe brain damage. The course the disease takes and how fast changes occur vary from person to person. 

No treatment can stop Alzheimer's disease. However, for some people in the early and middle stages of the disease, drugs may help prevent some symptoms from becoming worse for a limited time. Also, some medicines may help control behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's disease such as sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety and depression. Treating these symptoms often makes patients more comfortable and makes their care easier for caregivers.

Is there help for caregivers?

Most often, spouses and other family members provide the day-to-day care for people with Alzheimer's disease. As the disease gets worse, people often need more and more care. This can be hard for caregivers and can affect their physical and mental health, family life, job and finances.

The Alzheimer's Association has chapters nationwide that provide educational programs and support groups for caregivers and family members of people with Alzheimer's disease.

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