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Alzheimer's Disease


Topic Overview

The brain

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Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of mental decline, or dementia. But dementia also has many other causes. For more information, see the topic Dementia.

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease damages the brainClick here to see an illustration.. It causes a steady loss of memory and of how well you can speak, think, and do your daily activities.

Alzheimer's disease gets worse over time, but how quickly this happens varies. Some people lose the ability to do daily activities in the first few years. Others may do fairly well until much later in the disease.

Mild memory loss is common in people older than 60. It may not mean that you have Alzheimer's disease. But if your memory is getting worse, see your doctor. If it is Alzheimer's, treatment may help.

What causes Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease happens because of changes in the brain. Some of the deterioration may be related to a loss of chemical messengers in the brain, called neurotransmitters, that allow nerve cells in the brain to communicate properly.

People with Alzheimer's disease have two things in the brain that are not normal: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Experts don't know if amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are side effects of Alzheimer's disease or part of the cause. These plaques and tangles are not found in people who do not have the disease.

What are the symptoms?

For most people, the first symptom of Alzheimer's disease is memory loss. Often the person who has a memory problem doesn't notice it, but family and friends do. But the person with the disease may also know that something is wrong.

The symptoms of Alzheimer's get worse slowly over time. You may:

  • Have trouble making decisions.
  • Be confused about what time and day it is.
  • Get lost in places you know well.
  • Have trouble learning and remembering new information.
  • Have trouble finding the right words to say what you want to say.
  • Have more trouble doing daily tasks like cooking a meal or paying bills.

A person who gets these symptoms over a few hours or days or whose symptoms suddenly get worse needs to see a doctor right away, because there may be another problem.

How is Alzheimer's disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your past health and do a physical exam. He or she may ask you to do some simple things that test your memory and other mental skills. Your doctor may also check how well you can do daily tasks.

The exam usually includes blood tests to look for another cause of your problems. You may have tests such as CT scans and MRI scans, which look at your brain. By themselves, these tests can't show for sure whether you have Alzheimer's.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. But there are medicines that may slow symptoms down for a while and make the disease easier to live with. These medicines may not work for everyone or have a big effect. But most experts think they are worth a try.

As the disease gets worse, you may get depressed or angry and upset. The doctor may also prescribe medicines to help with these problems.

How can you help your loved one with Alzheimer's disease?

If you are or will be taking care of a loved one with Alzheimer's, start learning what you can expect. This can help you make the most of the person's abilities as they change. And it can help you deal with new problems as they arise.

Work with your loved one to make decisions about the future before the disease gets worse. It's important to write a living will and a durable power of attorney.

Your loved one will need more and more care as the disease gets worse. You may be able to give this care at home. Or you may want to think about using assisted living or a nursing home.

Ask your doctor about local resources such as support groups or other groups that can help as you care for your loved one. You can also search the Internet for online support groups. Help is available.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about Alzheimer's disease:

  • What is Alzheimer's disease?
  • What causes it?
  • Can I prevent it?
  • What are the symptoms?
  • What happens in Alzheimer's disease?
  • What increases my risk for the disease?

Being diagnosed:

  • Who can diagnose Alzheimer's disease?
  • How is it diagnosed?
  • What are the warning signs?
  • What are neuropsychological tests?

Getting treatment:

  • How is Alzheimer's disease treated?
  • Will medicines help with memory loss?
  • Click here to view a Decision Point.Should I take medicines to treat Alzheimer's disease?

Living with Alzheimer's disease:

  • How do I care for a person with Alzheimer's disease at home?
  • Can a person with Alzheimer's disease continue driving?
  • Click here to view a Decision Point.Does a person with the disease need to be in a nursing home?

End-of-life decisions:

  • What legal steps should the family take?
  • What is end-of-life care?
  • What is hospice care?
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