What is Alzheimer’s disease (AD)?
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia (a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities) among older people. It involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. Every day scientists learn more, but right now the causes of AD are still unknown, and there is no cure.
AD is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain are considered hallmarks of AD.
Scientists also have found other brain changes in people with AD. There is a loss of nerve cells in areas of the brain that are vital to memory and other mental abilities. There also are lower levels of chemicals in the brain that carry complex messages back and forth between nerve cells. AD may disrupt normal thinking and memory by blocking these messages between nerve cells.
How many Americans have AD?
Scientists think that up to 4 million Americans suffer from AD. The disease usually begins after age 60, and risk goes up with age. While younger people also may get AD, it is much less common. About 3 percent of men and women ages 65 to 74 have AD, and nearly half of those age 85 and older may have the disease. It is important to note, however, that AD is not a normal part of aging.
How long can a person live with AD?
AD is a slow disease, starting with mild memory problems and ending with severe brain damage. The course the disease takes and how fast changes occur vary from person to person. On average, AD patients live from 8 to 10 years after they are diagnosed, though the disease can last for as many as 20 years.
What is Dementia?
The term "dementia" describes a group of symptoms that are caused by changes in brain function. Dementia symptoms may include asking the same questions repeatedly; becoming lost in familiar places; being unable to follow directions; getting disoriented about time, people, and places; and neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition. People with dementia lose their abilities at different rates.
Dementia is caused by many conditions. Some conditions that cause dementia can be reversed, and others cannot. The two most common forms of dementia in older people are Alzheimer’s disease and multi-infarct dementia (sometimes called vascular dementia). These types of dementia are irreversible, which means they cannot be cured.
Reversible conditions with symptoms of dementia can be caused by a high fever, dehydration, vitamin deficiency and poor nutrition, bad reactions to medicines, problems with the thyroid gland, or a minor head injury. Medical conditions like these can be serious and should be treated by a doctor as soon as possible.
Sometimes older people have emotional problems that can be mistaken for dementia. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored may be more common for older people facing retirement or coping with the death of a spouse, relative, or friend. Adapting to these changes leaves some people feeling confused or forgetful. Emotional problems can be eased by supportive friends and family, or by professional help from a doctor or counselor.
What is Multi-Infarct Dementia (MID)?
In multi-infarct dementia, a series of small strokes or changes in the brain’s blood supply may result in the death of brain tissue. The location in the brain where the small strokes occur determines the seriousness of the problem and the symptoms that arise. Symptoms that begin suddenly may be a sign of this kind of dementia. People with multi-infarct dementia are likely to show signs of improvement or remain stable for long periods of time, then quickly develop new symptoms if more strokes occur. In many people with multi-infarct dementia, high blood pressure is to blame. One of the most important reasons for controlling high blood pressure is to prevent strokes.
What is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)?
Recently, scientists have focused on a type of memory change called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is different from both AD and normal age-related memory change. People with MCI have ongoing memory problems but do not have other losses like confusion, attention problems, and difficulty with language. Scientists funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) are conducting the Memory Impairment Study to learn whether early diagnosis and treatment of MCI might prevent or slow further memory loss, including the development of AD.