Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia among older people. Dementia is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities.
AD begins slowly. It first involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language. People with AD may have trouble remembering things that happened recently or names of people they know. A related problem, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), causes more memory problems than normal for people of the same age. Many, but not all, people with MCI will develop AD.
Over time, AD symptoms get worse. People may not recognize family members. They may have trouble speaking, reading or writing. They may forget how to brush their teeth or comb their hair. Later on, they may become anxious or aggressive or wander away from home. Eventually, they need full-time care. This can cause great stress for family members who must care for them.
AD usually begins after the age of 60 and the risk increases with age. The risk is also higher if a family member has been diagnosed with the disease.
Currently, there are no medications that slow the progression of AD. However, four FDA-approved medications are used to treat AD symptoms. These drugs help individuals carry out the activities of daily living by maintaining thinking, memory or speaking skills. They can also help with some of the behavioral and personality changes associated with AD. However, they will not stop or reverse AD and appear to help individuals for only a few months to a few years.
Occasionally, people develop AD in their 30s, 40s and 50s. This is known as “early onset” AD. These individuals have a mutation in one of three different inherited genes that cause the disease to begin at an earlier age. More than 90 percent of AD develops in people older than 65. This form of AD is called “late-onset” AD, and its development and pattern of damage in the brain is similar to that of early-onset AD. The course of this disease varies from person to person, as does the rate of decline.
We don’t yet completely understand the causes of late-onset AD, but they likely include genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Although the risk of developing AD increases with age, AD and dementia symptoms are not a part of normal aging. There are also some forms of dementia that aren’t related to brain diseases such as AD, but are caused by systemic abnormalities such as metabolic syndrome, in which the combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes causes confusion and memory loss.
For more information, go to ALZ.org.