Alzheimer's Basics

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. The tendency to confuse the two terms, Alzheimer's and dementia — or to combine them — can lead to confusion. Alzheimer's and dementia are not the same thing. Dementia is a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities. Alzheimer's disease, named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, is an irreversible brain disease that, over time, destroys memory and thinking skills. Symptoms typically appear in individuals around age 60, characterized by memory problems in the very early stages. Other symptoms include language deterioration, confusion, restlessness, forgetfulness, and mood swings. These early symptoms of Alzheimer's resemble the signs of natural aging, and can be overlooked.

Alzheimer's is not a normal part of the aging process. However, the greatest known risk factor is increasing age. While Alzheimer's disease generally affects individuals over 65 years old, up to five percent of people develop early onset Alzheimer's, which can appear as early as the 40s or 50s. Alzheimer's is a progressive disease, which means that the disease progresses — or worsens — over time, eventually destroying cognition. Early-onset Alzheimer's is a rare form of the disease. Typically, people who develop the disease have late-onset Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's Research

Alzheimer's progression can be slowed but the disease cannot be cured. Current treatment focuses on slowing the disease's progression and managing the patient's behavioral problems.

Scientists continue to research the causes of Alzheimer's disease, which are not fully known. However research suggests that Alzheimer's develops due to a series of events in the brain over an extended period of time. Causes may include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Each person differs in genetic make-up and lifestyle; so changes to any of these factors will vary depending on each unique individual. What scientists are trying to understand is why Alzheimer's mainly affects older adults. Research helps to reveal how age-related changes in the brain may harm neurons and contribute to damage, possibly leading to Alzheimer's disease.

Beyond genetics, scientists are increasingly looking to environmental and lifestyle factors that may contribute to Alzheimer's. Research suggests that brain health and heart health are connected. Since your brain is nourished by your body's networks of blood vessels, keeping fit and heart-healthy can increase your chances of delaying or preventing cognitive decline later in life. Scientists continue to examine the relationship between developing Alzheimer's and conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels, including: high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

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