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Fact Sheet

Definition:

Alzheimer's disease (pronounced Alz'-hi-merz) is a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking and behavior. Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a loss of intellectual function (thinking, remembering and reasoning) so severe that it interferes with an individual's daily functioning and eventually results in death. AD is the fourth leading cause of death in adults, after heart disease, cancer and stroke. Men and women are affected almost equally. Dr. Alois Alzheimer first described the disease in 1906. Since then, researchers have developed a deeper understanding of the changes in the brain (plaques and tangles) as well as behavioral changes that characterize the disease. Identified risk factors are age and family history. Most people diagnosed with AD are older than age 65; however, AD can occur in people in their 40's and 50's.

Symptoms:

Symptoms of AD (Alzheimer's disease) can include gradual memory loss, decline in the ability to perform routine tasks, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills, impairment of judgment and planning, and personality changes. The rate of progression varies from person to person. The time from the onset of symptoms until death ranges from three to twenty years; the average is eight years. Eventually, persons with AD become totally incapable of caring for themselves.

Diagnosis:

Early and careful evaluation is important because many conditions, including some that are treatable or reversible can cause dementia. Potentially reversible conditions include depression, adverse drug reactions, metabolic changes and nutritional deficiencies. There is no single clinical test to identify AD (Alzheimer's disease). A comprehensive evaluation to establish diagnosis will include a complete health history, physical examination, neurological and mental status assessments and other tests including analysis of blood and urine, electrocardiogram (EKG) and chest x-rays. Documenting symptoms and behavior over time, in a diary fashion, will help physicians understand the person's illness. The physician may order additional tests as needed including: computerized topography (CT scan), electroencephalography (EEG), formal psychiatric assessment, and/or neurophysiological testing. While this evaluation may provide a diagnosis of possible or probable AD, confirmation of AD requires examination of brain tissue, which is usually done by an autopsy.

Treatment:

Although no cure for AD is presently available, good planning and medical and social management can ease the burdens on the patient and family. Health care directives and decisions can be made while the patient has the mental capacity to do so. Physical exercise and social activity are important, as is proper nutrition. A calm and well-structured environment may help the afflicted person to continue functioning. Intervention strategies and if necessary, appropriate medication can lessen symptoms such as agitation and anxiety, and improve sleep and participation in activities.

Causes and Research:

The causes of AD are not known and are currently receiving intensive scientific investigation. Suspected causes include diseased genes or a genetic predisposition, abnormal protein buildup in the brain and environmental toxins. Scientists are applying the newest knowledge and research techniques in molecular genetics, pathology, immunology, toxicology, neurology, psychiatry, pharmacology, biochemistry and epidemiology to fine the causes, treatments and cures for AD.

Economic Impact:

At some point, the person with AD will require 24-hour care, including assistance with daily activities such as eating, grooming and toileting. The financing of care nationwide for AD - including costs of diagnosis, treatment, nursing home care and formal or paid care - is estimated to be more that $100 billion each year. The federal government covers $4.4 billion and the states another $4.1 billion. Much of the remaining costs are borne by patients and their families.

The Alzheimer's Association is the only national voluntary health organization dedicated to researching the causes, treatments, cures and preventions of Alzheimer's Disease and to providing education and support services to people with AD, their families and caregivers.

For further information about Alzheimer's disease or related disorders, contact the Alzheimer's Association at:

Alzheimer's Association of the Great Plains Chapter, 402-420-2540 or 1-800-487-2585 (Helpline)

Midlands Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association , 402-502-4301 or 1-800-272-3900 (Helpline)

Content for this site is provided by the Alzheimer's Association of the Great Plains Chapter. Questions or comments are invited. Contact Teresa.Stitcher-Fritz@alz.org or call toll-free, 1-800-487-9668 or 1-800-487-2585 (helpline).

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