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What Is Alzheimer Disease And What Causes It

Get The Essential Facts About Alzheimers

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimers is a disease, not a normal part of aging.

Alzheimers disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting about 1 in 8 people over age 65.

It causes 60 80% of all dementia cases and is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.

We explain what Alzheimers disease is, common symptoms, causes, and treatment options.

What Is Alzheimers Disease

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Alzheimers disease is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. People with Alzheimers also experience changes in behavior and personality.

More than 6;million Americans, many of them age 65 and older, are estimated to have Alzheimers disease. Thats more individuals living with Alzheimers disease than the population of a large American city. Many more people experience Alzheimer’s in their lives as family members and friends of those with the disease.

The symptoms of Alzheimers disease changes in thinking, remembering, reasoning, and behavior are known as dementia. Thats why Alzheimers is sometimes referred to as dementia. Other diseases and conditions can also cause dementia, with Alzheimers being the most common cause of dementia in older adults.

Alzheimers disease is not a normal part of aging. Its the result of complex changes in the brain that start years before symptoms appear and lead to the loss of brain cells and their connections.

Alzheimers Disease And The Brain Relation

Subtle changes in the brain begin long before the first symptoms of memory loss. There are 100 billion nerve cells in the brain. Each nerve cell connects to many others to form a communication network. Groups of nerve cells have special functions. Some are involved in thinking, learning, and remembering. Others help us see, hear and smell.

The brain cells work like small factories to do their work. They get supplies, generate energy, build equipment and get rid of waste. Cells also process and store information and communicate with other cells. Coordinating as well as large amounts of fuel and oxygen are required to keep everything running.

Scientists believe that Alzheimers disease prevents and stops parts of the cell factory from functioning well. They are not sure and clear where the trouble begins. But like a real factory, backups, and breakdowns in one system cause problems in other areas. As the damage spreads, the cells lose their ability and capability to function and eventually die, causing irreversible changes in the brain.

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How Long Can A Person Live With Alzheimers Disease

The time from diagnosis to death varies as little as three;or four;years if the person is older than 80 when diagnosed, to as long as 10 or more years if the person is younger.

Alzheimers 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.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimers disease, though there has been significant progress in recent years in developing and testing new treatments. Several medicines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration;to treat people with Alzheimers.

What To Do If You Suspect Alzheimers Disease

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Getting checked by your healthcare provider can help determine if the symptoms you are experiencing are related to Alzheimers disease, or a more treatable conditions such as a vitamin deficiency or a side effect from medication. Early and accurate diagnosis also provides opportunities for you and your family to consider financial planning, develop advance directives, enroll in clinical trials, and anticipate care needs.

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Bad Bacteria And Other Microbes

It might seem surprising that a mouth bacterium has been implicated in Alzheimers disease . But it wouldnt be the first time an illness has turned out to have an unexpected infectious origin.

The iconic case is stomach ulcers, once thought to be caused by stress or excess acid, and treated with acid-lowering medications. Then Australian doctor Barry Marshall showed that a stomach bacterium called Helicobacter pylori was behind them, a feat that won him a Nobel prize.

Streptococcus bacteria, which cause tonsillitis and strep throat, are suspected of triggering obsessive-compulsive disorder in children. The thinking is that the immune systems attack on the bacteria cross-reacts with certain human proteins, causing an autoimmune attack against the persons own brain tissue.

Bacteria arent the only ones under suspicion. There are indications that a virus is behind some cases of obesity. And one study has found that people with antibodies to a single-celled brain parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which is spread in cat faeces, are more likely to develop schizophrenia. Some people think up to a third of cases could be caused by infection with T. gondii.

But not all purported links bear fruit. Twenty years ago, there was great excitement when a bacterium that can cause pneumonia lung infections was found in the blood vessel plaques that cause heart disease. But giving people antibiotics to kill this bug didnt help reduce heart attacks. Clare Wilson

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How Is Alzheimer’s Different From Other Forms Of Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is distinguished from other forms of dementia by characteristic changes in the brain that are visible only upon microscopic examination during autopsy. Brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease often show presence of the following:

  • Fiber tangles within nerve cells

  • Clusters of degenerating nerve endings

Another characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease is the reduced production of certain brain chemicals necessary for communication between nerve cells, especially acetylcholine, as well as norepinephrine, serotonin, and somatostatin.

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What Will The Doctor Do

It can be hard for a doctor to diagnose Alzheimer disease because many of its symptoms can be like those of other conditions affecting the brain. The doctor will talk to the patient, find out about any medical problems the person has, and will examine him or her.

The doctor can ask the person questions or have the person take a written test to see how well his or her memory is working. Doctors also can use medical tests to take a detailed picture of the brain. They can study these images and look for signs of Alzheimer disease.

When a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer disease, the doctor may prescribe medicine to help with memory and thinking. The doctor also might give the person medicine for other problems, such as depression . Unfortunately, the medicines that the doctors have can’t cure Alzheimer disease; they just help slow it down.

What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Dementia

What causes Alzheimer’s Disease?

Because dementia is a general term, its symptoms can vary widely from person to person. People with dementia have problems with:

  • Memory
  • Reasoning, judgment, and problem solving
  • Visual perception beyond typical age-related changes in vision

Signs that may point to dementia include:

  • Getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
  • Using unusual words to refer to familiar objects
  • Forgetting the name of a close family member or friend
  • Forgetting old memories
  • Not being able to complete tasks independently

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The Role Of Plaques And Tangles

Two unusual structures called plaques and tangles are the prime suspects in damaging and killing nerve cells.

  • The plaques are deposits of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid that forms in the spaces between nerve cells.
  • Tangles are twisted fibers of another protein called tau that form inside cells.

The autopsy studies tell that most individuals develop and form some plaques and tangles as they age over time but people with Alzheimers develop in more predictable patterns than they begin in areas important for memory before spreading to other areas.

Scientists do not know exactly what role plaques and tangles play in Alzheimers disease. Most experts believe they somehow play a critical role in blocking communication among nerve cells and disrupting processes that cells need to survive. It is the destruction and death of nerve cells that causes memory failure, personality changes, problems completing daily activities, and other symptoms of Alzheimers disease.

When Someone You Love Has Alzheimer Disease

You might feel sad or angry or both if someone you love has Alzheimer disease. You might feel nervous around the person, especially if he or she is having trouble remembering important things or can no longer take care of himself or herself.

You might not want to go visit the person, even though your mom or dad wants you to. You are definitely not alone in these feelings. Try talking with a parent or another trusted adult. Just saying what’s on your mind might help you feel better. You also may learn that the adults in your life are having struggles of their own with the situation.

If you visit a loved one who has Alzheimer disease, try to be patient. He or she may have good days and bad days. It can be sad if you can’t have fun in the same ways together. Maybe you and your grandmother liked to go to concerts. If that’s no longer possible, maybe bring her some wonderful music and listen together. It’s a way to show her that you care and showing that love is important, even if her memory is failing.

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What Happens In Alzheimer Disease

You probably know that your brain works by sending signals. Chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters , allow brain cells to talk to each other. But a person with Alzheimer disease has lower amounts of neurotransmitters.

People with Alzheimer disease also develop deposits of stuff that prevent the cells from working properly. When this happens, the cells can’t send the right signals to other parts of the brain. Over time, brain cells affected by Alzheimer disease also begin to shrink and die.

Alzheimers Disease Vs Mild Cognitive Impairment

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Early dementia, also known as mild cognitive impairment , involves problems with memory, language, or other cognitive functions. But unlike those with full-blown Alzheimers, people with MCI are still able to function in their daily lives without relying on others.

According to the Alzheimers Association, about 15 to 20 percent of people over the age of 65 experience mild cognitive impairment. Many people with MCI eventually develop Alzheimers disease or another type of dementia. However, others plateau at a relatively mild stage of decline and are able to live independently. Some people with mild cognitive impairment even return to normal.

Symptoms of MCI include:

  • Frequently losing or misplacing things.
  • Frequently forgetting conversations, appointments, or events.
  • Difficulty remembering the names of new acquaintances.
  • Difficulty following the flow of a conversation.

It is not yet fully understood why MCI progresses to Alzheimers disease in some, while remaining stable in others. The course is difficult to predict, but in general, the greater the degree of memory impairment, the greater the risk of developing Alzheimers down the line.

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How Is Alzheimers Disease Diagnosed

These tests are used to diagnose Alzheimers disease or to rule out other medical conditions that cause symptoms similar to Alzheimers disease:

  • Positron emission tomography. This scan shows the abnormal brain activity in a person affected by Alzheimers disease. It can also help diagnosis Alzheimers disease versus other forms of dementia.
  • Amyloid PET. This scan shows the buildup of amyloid protein in the brain.
  • FDG PET. This scans shows how well brain cells use glucose. A decline in the absorption of glucose is a sign of Alzheimers disease.
  • Health Environmental And Lifestyle Factors That May Contribute To Alzheimer’s Disease

    Research suggests that a host of factors beyond genetics may play a role in the development and course of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a great deal of interest, for example, in the relationship between cognitive decline and vascular conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as metabolic conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Ongoing research will help us understand whether and how reducing risk factors for these conditions may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

    A nutritious diet, physical activity, social engagement, sleep, and mentally stimulating pursuits have all been associated with helping people stay healthy as they age. These factors might also help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials are testing some of these possibilities.

    Early-life factors may also play a role. For example, studies have linked higher levels of education with a decreased risk of dementia. There are also differences in dementia risk among racial groups and sexesall of which are being studied to better understand the causes of Alzheimers disease and to develop effective treatments and preventions for all people.

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    Medications For Cognitive Symptoms

    No disease-modifying drugs are available for Alzheimers disease, but some options may reduce the symptoms and help improve quality of life.

    Drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors can ease cognitive symptoms, including memory loss, confusion, altered thought processes, and judgment problems. They improve neural communication across the brain and slow the progress of these symptoms.

    Three common drugs with Food and Drug Administration approval to treat these symptoms of Alzheimers disease are:

    • donepezil , to treat all stages
    • galantamine , to treat mild-to-moderate stages
    • rivastigmine , to treat mild-to-moderate stages

    Another drug, called memantine , has approval to treat moderate-to-severe Alzheimers disease. A combination of memantine and donepezil is also available.

    What Causes Alzheimer Disease

    Alzheimer’s Disease, What Causes It?

    Lots of research is being done to find out more about the causes of Alzheimer disease. There is no one reason why people get it. Older people are more likely to get it, and the risk increases the older the person gets. In other words, an 85-year-old is more likely to get it than a;65-year-old. And women are more likely to get it than men.

    Researchers also think genes handed down from family members can make a person more likely to get Alzheimer disease. But that doesn’t mean everyone related to someone who has it will get the disease. Other things may make it more likely that someone will get the disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Down syndrome, or having a head injury.

    On the positive side, researchers believe exercise, a healthy diet, and taking steps to keep your mind active may help delay the start of Alzheimer disease.

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    Stages Of Alzheimer’s Disease

    Although everyone experiences the condition differently, understanding the trajectory of it can help patients and their caregivers know what to expect. Alzheimer’s typically progresses in three general phases:

    • Early stage;The person still functions independently. He may still drive, work and be part of social activities. But the individual forgets familiar words or the location of everyday objects with increasing frequency. Symptoms may not be widely apparent, but family and close friends may notice early signs and voice concern.
    • Middle stage;The individual can still participate in daily activities but may need extra help. She gets confused more easily or experiences personality changes, like getting angry or acting out in unexpected ways. During this stage it’s important to determine what the person living with Alzheimer’s still enjoys doing and find ways to engage her in those activities. You want to help the individual maintain the best quality of life for as long as possible.
    • Late stage;The patient loses the ability to respond to his environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement. As memory and cognitive skills worsen, significant personality changes take place and extensive care is required. The end stage of Alzheimer’s can last for several weeks or years; it can be extremely demanding and emotionally draining for families.

    Alzheimers Disease Causes & Risk Factors

    While experts havent determined a specific cause of Alzheimers disease, they have identified certain risk factors that include:

    • Family history. Individuals with an immediate family member who has developed the condition are more likely to get it.
    • Specific genes like Apolipoprotein E have been linked to the disease.
    • Most people who develop Alzheimers disease are age 65 or over.

    Keep in mind, having one or more of these risk factors doesnt mean that youll necessarily develop Alzheimers disease, it simply raises your risk level. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your risk of developing the condition if you have concerns.

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    Stages Of Alzheimers Disease

    People with Alzheimers disease differ in the patterns of problems they experience and in the speed with which their abilities deteriorate. Their abilities may change from day to day, or even within the same day. What is certain is that the persons abilities will deteriorate sometimes rapidly over a few months, sometimes more slowly, over a number of years.Some of the features of Alzheimers disease are classified into three stages. It is important to remember that not all of these features will be present in every person, nor will every person go through every stage. But these stages are still a useful description of the progression of Alzheimers disease.At all stages of Alzheimers disease, treatments and support services are available. Use these to make sure of the best possible quality of life for everyone affected by Alzheimers disease.

    New Blood Tests May Help With Early Detection


    Among the most exciting news in the Alzheimer’s field is the development of simple blood tests to detect the disease, reducing the need for an expensive brain scan or invasive spinal tap. The new tests also potentially make it possible to detect the changes in the brain before symptoms appear.

    One test, called the PrecivityAD, is already available in most of the U.S. It went on the market in late 2020, after being approved under the federal government’s general rules for commercial labs, but it does not yet have authorization from the Food and Drug Administration . The test detects the presence of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain and is meant to be used by health providers who are evaluating people 60 and older who have cognitive or memory problems.

    Several other tests are also close to market, Weiner says. He predicts that a variety of tests to help diagnose Alzheimer’s will be available to patients in the next few years.

    Early detection of Alzheimer’s is key because the brain may start changing as early as 20 years before symptoms appear, says Rudolph Tanzi, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and codirector of the McCance Center for Brain Health at Massachusetts General Hospital.

    Many researchers believe that intervening before symptoms develop offers the greatest potential for halting or delaying disease progression.

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