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An Overview of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease attacks the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. Alzheimer's is a form of dementia, accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases.

What are The Symptoms?

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Memory loss is one of the earliest symptoms, along with a gradual decline of other intellectual and thinking abilities, called cognitive functions, and changes in personality or behavior.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include memory loss, language deterioration, impaired ability to mentally manipulate visual information, poor judgment, confusion, restlessness, and mood swings. Eventually Alzheimer's destroys cognition, personality, and the ability to function. The early symptoms, which include forgetfulness and loss of concentration, are often missed because they resemble natural signs of aging. 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's and Dementia

Who Gets It?

Up to 4.5 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer's disease. The disease usually begins after age 65 and risk goes up with age. Nearly half of those age 85 and older may have the disease. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease, but its course can vary from 5 to 20 years. Alzheimer's disease damages the brain, which in turn can results in increased complications that can lead to death, such as trouble swallowing, increased risk of choking, and increased susceptibility to infection. The time course of the disease varies by individual, ranging from five to 20 years.

What Are the Stages of Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's worsens over time. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. Alzheimer's advances in stages, progressing from mild forgetfulness and cognitive impairment to widespread loss of mental abilities. In advanced Alzheimer's, people become dependent on others for every aspect of their care.

As the disease goes on, symptoms are more easily noticed and become more serious. Forgetfulness begins to interfere with daily activities. People in the middle stages of Alzheimer's may forget how to do simple tasks like brushing their teeth or combing their hair. They can no longer think clearly. They can fail to recognize familiar people and places. They begin to have problems speaking, understanding, reading, or writing. Later on, people with AD may become anxious or aggressive, or wander away from home. Eventually, patients need total care. More on the stages of Alzheimer's.

How Does Alzheimer's Affect the Brain?

In 1906, a German doctor named Dr. Alois Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps and tangled bundles of fibers. The clumps are now called amyloid plaques and the tangles are called neurofibrillary tangles. Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain are the prime suspects in damaging and killing nerve cells and they are considered signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Microscopic changes in the brain begin long before the first signs of memory loss. There is a loss of cells and pathways in areas of the brain that are vital to memory and other mental abilities. There also are lower levels of some of the chemicals in the brain that carry complex messages back and forth between nerve cells. Alzheimer's disease may disrupt normal thinking and memory by blocking these messages between nerve cells. More on how Alzheimer's affects the brain.

How is Alzheimer's Diagnosed?

Alzheimer's disease often goes unrecognized or undiagnosed in the early stages because the first symptoms are often viewed as normal parts of aging. To diagnose Alzheimer's disease, doctors use a series of tests and tools to evaluate thinking, behavior and physical function because there is no single scale that can definitively diagnose Alzheimer's disease by itself.

Diagnostic tests may include the Clock Drawing test, the Mini-Mental Stage Examination (MMSE), and the Functional Assessment Staging test (FAST). In addition to these tests, the doctor may also conduct a medical and family health history, a routine physical exam, an exam that tests physical sensation controlled by the central nervous system, a brain scan, a neuropsychological evaluation, and interviews with family members and friends.

However, the only definite way to diagnose Alzheimer's disease is to find out whether there are "plaques" and "tangles" in brain tissue. To look at brain tissue, however, doctors usually must wait until they do an autopsy. Therefore, doctors can only make a diagnosis of "possible" or "probable" Alzheimer's disease while the person is still alive. At specialized centers, doctors can diagnose Alzheimer's correctly up to 90 percent of the time.

Is There a Cure?

There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues. Although current Alzheimer's treatments cannot stop Alzheimer's from progressing, they can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

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