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Alzheimer's Disease FAQs

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. There are two major types of Alzheimer's disease:

  • Early Alzheimer's - which starts at 65 years of age or younger
  • Late Alzheimer's - which starts after age 65.

What characteristics are associated with Alzheimer's disease?

Often it is difficult to pinpoint when the Alzheimer's disease actually began in a person. Usually, the person experiences a gradual onset of memory problems. The person with early Alzheimer's disease may express concern that his/her memory is failing, and he/she may begin to struggle to find the right words when speaking. Family members notice that it is more difficult for the person with Alzheimer's disease to learn something new or to remember what was recently told to him/her.

As the illness progresses and other functions of the brain are affected, the Alzheimer's victim becomes increasingly impaired. In addition to problems with memory, he/she begins to have personality changes, including increased irritability or outbursts of anger. The patient may lose his/her motivation, ambition, and pride. He/she may begin to exhibit symptoms related to depression and anxiety.

Because of the problems connected with memory, the person afflicted with Alzheimer's disease may wander from home and become lost. Eventually, the patient develops problems with balance, becomes bedridden, mute, and, eventually, totally dependent.

What causes Alzheimer's disease?

The cause of Alzheimer's disease is unknown. Some researchers believe that problems with the delicate balance of brain chemicals causes destruction to parts of the brain. Other scientists believe that viral infections or environmental toxins may contribute to the cause of the disease. Recent research has shown a genetic or chromosomal link for some with the illness.

Does Alzheimer's disease affect males, females, or both?

Although both men and women can have Alzheimer's disease, it is a little more common in women.

At what age does Alzheimer's disease appear?

Only rarely does Alzheimer's disease strike before 50 years of age. As people get older, however, the disease is found in larger numbers of the population.

How often is Alzheimer's disease seen in our society?

Alzheimer's disease is found in about five percent (5%) of the people in the United States, who are over 65 years of age. However, almost fifty percent (50%) of people who reach 85 years of age have Alzheimer's disease. It is estimated that by the year 2050 more than 15 million people in the United States will be treated for this disease.

How is Alzheimer's disease diagnosed?

A mental health professional arrives at the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease by taking a careful personal history of the patient/client. Because the disease affects memory, information from family members is very helpful in completing the history.

It is very important not to overlook a physical illness that might mimic or contribute to this disease. Because of the complexity of Alzheimer's disease a physician should be involved in the patient's care. The physician will perform a complete physical examination and request any necessary laboratory tests. There are no laboratory tests necessary to confirm Alzheimer's nor are there any physical conditions that must be met. However, brain scans such as the CT or MRI may be useful in helping to make the diagnosis. Unfortunately, confirmation of Alzheimer's, which requires microscopic examination of brain tissue, is usually not made until an autopsy is performed.

How is Alzheimer's disease treated?

It is important for people with Alzheimer's disease to receive a healthy diet, to get adequate exercise, and to be involved in family, social, and recreational activities as long as possible. A fair amount of stimulation can be helpful for people suffering from this disease. However, too much stimulation can cause confusion. A safe, structured, and familiar environment is recommended to help lessen confusion. TV, radio, reading material and visits with friends and family will help the victim of Alzheimer's disease remain connected to the outside world as long as possible.

There are no medicines that reverse the brain damage nor any that cure Alzheimer's disease. However, there are some medicines that can be prescribed to treat symptoms of depression, anxiety, or aggression.

Family support and therapy is crucial in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Support groups can be a very important source of help to family members of those stricken by this disease. If the family takes care of the person with Alzheimer's disease, special attention has to be given to the caregivers to avoid burnout since taking care of someone with this disease often becomes a full-time job.

What happens to someone with Alzheimer's disease?

Usually Alzheimer's disease begins slowly, progresses gradually, and leads to death. The prognosis for the recovery from Alzheimer's disease is very poor. The course is almost always for people to become steadily worse. Eventually, everyone with Alzheimer's disease requires nursing care, whether it is given by a spouse, other family members, or with the help of nursing home professionals.

Death is not usually caused from Alzheimer's disease itself but from some other illness associated with the dementia. For instance, a person with Alzheimer's disease may die of an infection like pneumonia.

What can people do if they need help?

If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.

Reviewed by athealth on January 29, 2014