As we honor our loved ones this November, Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, I would like to offer you the opportunity to arm yourself with the best information on Alzheimer’s disease. A better understanding of the disease can prepare you for the road ahead. Alzheimer’s is a complex neurological disease that is the most common form of dementia. More than 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s and more than 10 million are caring for a loved one with the disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Alzheimer”s disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of daily living. The causes of dementia can vary, depending on the types of brain changes that may be taking place. Other dementias include Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal disorders, and vascular dementia. It is common for people to have mixed dementia—a combination of two or more disorders, at least one of which is dementia.
Memory problems are typically one of the first signs of cognitive impairment related to Alzheimer’s disease. Some people with memory problems have a condition called mild cognitive impairment (MCI).The first symptoms of Alzheimer”s vary from person to person. For many, decline in non-memory aspects of cognition, such as word-finding, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may signal the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people. In people with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a genetic mutation is usually the cause. Late-onset Alzheimer”s arises from a complex series of brain changes that occur over decades. The causes probably include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. The importance of any one of these factors in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s may differ from person to person. One of the great mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease is why it largely strikes older adults. Research on normal brain aging is shedding light on this question.
Alzheimer’s disease research has developed to a point where scientists can look beyond treating symptoms to think about addressing underlying disease processes. Becoming well-informed about the disease is one important long-term strategy. Programs that teach families about the various stages of Alzheimer’s and about ways to deal with difficult behaviors and other caregiving challenges can help. Good coping skills, a strong support network, and respite care are other ways that help caregivers handle the stress of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.