Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, a group of brain disorders that cause difficulty with thinking, reasoning, judgment, and memory. Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition that often begins with mild memory loss and can eventually lead to severe problems that interfere with a person’s daily activities and independence.
The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, but late-onset Alzheimer’s is due to a series of brain changes that occur over a long period of time. It is believed a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors may play a role.
There is no definitive way to tell if you will have Alzheimer’s. There are risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing the condition, but simply having these risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean you will have Alzheimer's disease.
Risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease include:
- Older age
- Most people develop Alzheimer’s after the age of 65, though it can occur at younger ages
- A family history
- Genetic factors
- A gene called apolipoprotein E (APOE) is one of the most common risk genes
- Being female
- About twice as many women as men over 65 have Alzheimer's
- Head injuries
- Conditions that affect the heart
- Sedentary lifestyle or social isolation
- People who stay physically active, socially connected, and mentally engaged seem to be less likely to develop dementia
What Are Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease?
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s are usually mild to begin with, and slowly and progressively worsen. You may have Alzheimer’s disease if you have early symptoms such as:
- Forgetfulness/memory loss
- Repeating questions
- Difficulty concentrating
- Losing things
- Problems with reasoning
- Difficulty with everyday tasks such as paying bills or balancing a checkbook
- Wandering and getting lost in familiar places
- Problems with language, such as being unable to find the right words for things
- Poor judgment
- Mood and personality changes
- Increased anxiety and/or aggression
How Is Alzheimer's Diagnosed?
Alzheimer’s disease is usually diagnosed based on a patient’s history and symptoms along with information provided by family members.
Memory and other cognitive tests may be used to assess the degree of difficulty with different types of problems. These tests can be given again and monitored over time to observe any decline in function.
Other tests that may be indicated to help confirm Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, or to rule out other conditions include:
- Blood tests to check for:
- Chemical or hormonal imbalance
- Vitamin deficiency
- Brain scans
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for other problems
- Positron emission tomography (PET) scans can show abnormal protein deposits in Alzheimer's disease, but it is usually only performed for research studies
- Scans may also help identify the type of dementia, based on certain characteristic brain changes
- Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) can also help identify the type of dementia
What Is the Treatment for Alzheimer's?
There is currently no single treatment and no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Treatment for Alzheimer’s disease includes:
- To help maintain mental function in mild to moderate disease
- To help maintain mental function in moderate to severe disease
- Behavioral therapy to manage behavioral problems
- Changing the person's environment (e.g., regular exercise, avoiding triggers for sadness, socialization, engaging in enjoyable activities)
- To manage depression
- To manage aggression
- Determine what triggers the aggression
- Family members can learn strategies to help lessen triggers and confrontations
- May be treated with therapy or medication, depending on the cause
- To manage sleep problems
- May be treated with medications
- Behavior changes such as limiting daytime naps, increasing physical activity, maintaining daily routines, avoiding caffeine and alcohol in the evening, using artificial lighting when needed during the day, and avoiding bright light exposures during the night to help maintain normal wake-sleep cycles
- To manage safety issues, because people with Alzheimer’s disease often fall and hurt themselves
- Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes
- Maintain well-lit walkways
- Secure loose rugs or use non-skid backing on rugs
- Hide loose wires or electrical cords