Dementia is a brain disorder that diminishes memory and other intellectual abilities enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all cases. Although most people with Alzheimer's are 65 or older, it is not a normal part of aging, and does occasionally occur in people in their 40s and 50s.
Alzheimer's worsens over time. At first, loss of faculties is mild, but late-stage Alzheimer's is characterized by inability to respond to one's environment. It is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. There is no cure, but there are treatments. The average life expectancy after diagnosis is 8 to 10 years.
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life, especially forgetting recently learned information.
- Asking the same question repeatedly
- Repeating a story again and again
- Inability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks, such as cooking or household repairs
- Confusion with time or place, such as losing track of dates and seasons
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Vision problems and trouble judging distances
- Problems with conversation and vocabulary
- Losing things and inability to retrace one's steps
- Poor judgment, for example, giving money to telemarketers
- Neglecting to bathe, or wearing dirty clothes
- Withdrawal from hobbies, work, or social activities
- Changes in mood or personality
Causes and Prevention
The causes of Alzheimer's are not understood, but there is probably not just one. Age is by far the most important risk factor. The likelihood of having Alzheimer's doubles every five years after age 65.
Family history of Alzheimer's is a risk factor with early-onset Alzheimer's, but there is no clear pattern of inheritance in most cases. However, there may be genetic causes. The only gene so far identified as a risk factor is one that makes a protein called apolipoprotein E; about 15 percent of people have the form of this gene that is associated with Alzheimer's.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer's cannot be made with certainty in a living person. It requires examination of the brain for the plaques and tangles that indicate Alzheimer's. However, diagnosis can be made accurately in living patients up to 90 percent of the time. Tools your WellStar neurologist uses to diagnose "probable Alzheimer's disease" include:
- Taking a medical history and inquiring about medical problems and daily life
- Tests of memory, problem solving, and attentiveness
- Blood, urine, or spinal fluid tests
- Brain scans (CT or MRI)
Although no treatment has been shown to stop Alzheimer's, there are several drugs that may slow the progression of some symptoms, for a time, in people with early or middle stage Alzheimer's. These include Aricept® (donepezil), Exelon® (rivastigmine), and Razadyne® (galantamine). Moderate to severe Alzheimer's may be treated with Namenda® (mematine).
Other medications address symptoms of Alzheimer's, like sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression.