What is Alzheimer’s?
What We Understand Today
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks.
ALZHEIMER’S AND DEMENTIA BASICS
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging, although the greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with it are 65 and older. But Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age. Up to 5 percent of people with the disease have early onset Alzheimer’s (also known as younger-onset), which often appears when someone is in their 40s or 50s.
Alzheimer’s worsens over time. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. In its early stages, memory loss is mild, but with late-stage Alzheimer’s, individuals lose the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.
Alzheimer’s has no current cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues. Although current Alzheimer’s treatments cannot stop it from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. Today, there is a worldwide effort under way to find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, and prevent it from developing.
SYMPTOMS OF ALZHEIMER’S
Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we age. Most of us eventually notice some slowed thinking and occasional problems with remembering certain things. However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be a sign that brain cells are failing.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information because Alzheimer’s changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning. As it advances through the brain, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
People with memory loss or other possible signs of Alzheimer’s may find it hard to recognize they have a problem. Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family members or friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. If you need assistance finding a doctor with experience evaluating memory problems, your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter can help.
Early diagnosis and intervention methods are improving dramatically, and treatment options and sources of support can improve quality of life. Two support resources are available: ALZConnected (alzconnected.org), the organization’s messages boards and online social networking community, and Alzheimer’s Navigator (alzheimersnavigator.org), a web tool that creates customized action plans, based on answers given through online surveys.
ALZHEIMER’S AND THE BRAIN
Microscopic changes in the brain begin long before the first signs of memory loss.
The brain has 100 billion nerve cells (neurons). Each nerve cell connects with many others to form communication networks. Groups of nerve cells have special jobs. Some are involved in thinking, learning and remembering, while others help us see, hear and smell.
To do their work, brain cells operate like tiny factories. They receive supplies, generate energy, construct equipment and get rid of waste. Cells also process and store information and communicate with other cells. Keeping everything running requires coordination as well as large amounts of fuel and oxygen.
Scientists believe Alzheimer’s disease prevents parts of a cell’s factory from running well. They are not sure where the trouble starts. But just like a real factory, backups and breakdowns in one system cause problems in other areas. As damage spreads, cells lose their ability to do their jobs and, eventually die, causing irreversible changes in the brain.
Alzheimer’s is not the only cause of memory loss. Many people have trouble with memory — this does NOT mean they have Alzheimer’s. There are many different causes of memory loss. If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of dementia, visit a doctor so the cause can be determined.
THE ROLE OF PLAQUES AND TANGLES
Two abnormal structures called plaques and tangles are prime suspects in damaging and killing nerve cells.
Plaques are deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid that build up in the spaces between nerve cells.
Tangles are twisted fibers of another protein called tau that build up inside cells.
Though most people develop some plaques and tangles as they age, those with Alzheimer’s tend to develop far more. They also tend to develop them in a predictable pattern, beginning in areas important for memory before spreading to other regions.
Scientists do not know exactly what role plaques and tangles play in Alzheimer’s disease. Most experts believe they somehow play a critical role in blocking communication among nerve cells and disrupting processes that cells need to survive.
It is the destruction and death of nerve cells that causes memory failure, personality changes, problems carrying out daily activities and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
RESEARCH AND PROGRESS
Today, Alzheimer’s is at the forefront of biomedical research.
Researchers are working to uncover as many aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias as possible. Ninety percent of what we know about Alzheimer’s has been discovered in the last 15 years. Some of the most remarkable progress has shed light on how Alzheimer’s affects the brain. The hope is this better understanding will lead to new treatments. Many potential approaches are currently under investigation worldwide.
HELP IS AVAILABLE
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, you are not alone. The Alzheimer’s Association is the trusted resource for reliable information, education, referral and support to millions of people affected by the disease. Call its 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.
For more information and to sign up to receive updates about Alzheimer’s and dementia care and research, visit alz.org, or the Houston and Southeast Texas chapter page at alz.org/texas.