Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, a brain disorder, among older people. Alzheimer’s affects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. As many as 5.3 million Americans suffer from AD, including 5 percent of men and women between the ages of 65 and 74, and nearly half of individuals age 85 and older may have the disease. Alzheimer’s disease starts slowly with mild memory problems and ends with severe brain damage. One study indicated that people ages 75 to 84 who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are 2.5 times more likely to die than those without the disease and that risk of death doubles after age 85.
Although there have been many advances in AD research, the causes of the disease are unknown. Age is the most important known risk factor for AD, which usually begins after age 60 with risk increasing with age. In fact, the number of people diagnosed with the disease doubles every five years beyond age 65.
Heredity may play a role in many AD cases, especially the early-onset familial AD, a rare form of the disease that occurs between the ages of 30 and 60. Scientists have found that one form of a gene that makes apolipoprotein E (ApoE), a protein that helps carry cholesterol in the blood, may increase the risk of AD.
Although everyone has the gene, only 15 percent of the people have the form that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s.
The most obvious and often first symptom of Alzheimer’s is forgetfulness. Since AD is a slow disease, people may have trouble remembering some familiar names or events, or even have difficulty solving simple math problems.
As the disease persists, the forgetfulness can begin to interfere with daily activities, such as forgetting to brush teeth or comb hair. At advanced stages, an individual with AD may have trouble thinking, speaking, understanding, reading or writing.
An early, accurate diagnosis of AD offers the best chances to treat the symptoms of the disease. The only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer’s is to find out whether there are plaques and tangles in brain tissue, but that can only occur after a person’s death during an autopsy.
Doctors can use several tools to diagnose “probable” AD, including:
- Questions about general health, past medical problems and ability to carry out daily activities
- Tests of memory, problem solving, attention, counting and language
- Medical tests like tests of blood, urine or spinal fluid
- Brain scans
Other issues, such as thyroid problems, dehydration, poor nutrition, vitamin deficiencies, drug reactions, depression, brain tumors and blood vessel diseases in the brain, can cause AD-like symptoms and are treatable. These tests can also help doctors determine if there is any other cause of the person’s symptoms.
There is not a treatment to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s, but there are some medicines that may help control or slow down the symptoms.
Treating some of the behavioral symptoms of AD, such as sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety and depression, often makes patients more comfortable and makes their care easier for caregivers.