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What is Alzheimer's Disease? The Main Facts

March 17, 2020 | in Stats & Facts

Editorial Review Phoebe Stoye, A.B. in Neurobiology, Harvard College
Clinical Review Benedict Albensi, PhD, BCMAS, CRQM
St Boniface Hospital Research Center

Janice came out of the grocery store and began looking for her car, not remembering how she got to the store. While many of us occasionally forget where we parked our car, which is normal, actually forgetting that we drove to the store is not normal. It indicates a need for further workup to rule out any significant underlying conditions such as Alzheimer's Disease.

What is the Difference Between Alzheimer's And Other Forms of Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe symptoms of memory loss and cognitive decline. There are many types of dementia, with Alzheimer's being the most common. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's Disease damages brain cells and neurons that connect brain cells to one another. This damage causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. It is not a normal part of aging, often starting gradually and progressing consistently. An individual with Alzheimer's begins losing their most recent memories first, eventually followed by earlier ones.

A normal brain is able to learn, process, store, and retrieve information. A brain with Alzheimer's alters an individual's ability to recognize familiar people, speak clearly, control impulses, remember details, and enjoy activities. As the condition progresses, the individual becomes more confused, misplaces things, often repeats the same questions, struggles with language, or gets lost in familiar places. Although the incidence of Alzheimer's increases with age, people under 65 also develop this condition, which is referred to as early-onset Alzheimer's.

If your family recently experienced a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, and you want information on how to explain Alzheimer's to your children, read my article on this topic.

Tracing the Origins: Alois Alzheimer

Alzheimer's is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer who, in 1906, noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who died of an atypical mental illness. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (called beta-amyloid plaques) and bundles of fibers (called tau tangles). These plaques and tangles appeared to damage normal brain functions, especially parts of the brain where memories are formed. Age, family history, and genetics are also known risk factors for developing this disease. Though there are clinical methods to diagnose Alzheimer's, a confirmed diagnosis can only be made following an autopsy.

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis of Alzheimer's An accurate diagnosis cannot be overstated. People cannot get a full cognitive evaluation in a 12-minute office visit with only basic screening. Some people with Alzheimer's can actually pass these tests while others, without Alzheimer's, won't pass. As a result, there are many people who have Alzheimer's Disease but do not receive a diagnosis. Basic screening may point to memory loss, but a person needs a complete evaluation by qualified health professionals in order to diagnose this disease.

Editor's Note: If you are concerned that you or your loved one may have Alzheimer's Disease, visit out Alzheimer's staging tool, created and reviewed by clinicians.

Why is an accurate diagnosis so important? Early signs of Alzheimer's are not obvious, except to the person with the condition and people closest to them. Even then, signs may be mistaken for normal changes that come with age and may be ignored. To make an accurate diagnosis, specialized healthcare providers use several types of testing instruments and evaluate many aspects of a person's brain using established criteria. These tests include puzzles, word games, taking a complete health history, family input, lab tests, and possibly brain scans. It is important to determine if the memory loss is reversible, such as is seen sometimes with infection or depression, or irreversible such as in Alzheimer's.

Aligning with the Journey of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's is a chronic and progressive condition that can last for years. As the condition progresses, safety becomes the main concern. Confusion and disorientation may lead to wandering and a person getting lost in familiar areas. Eventually, as the stage of Alzheimer's progresses, the person is unable to care for day-to-day bodily needs. People generally live 8-10 years after their first symptoms appear, but the journey can be as short as three years or as long as twenty years.

Editor's Note: If you want to read more journeys of families and caregivers living with Alzheimer's, check out Caretalk's community stories section.


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