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What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's disease damages the brain. 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:
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.
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.
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