Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia that damages the brain. It causes a steady loss of memory and of how well you can speak, think, and do your daily activities.
The disease gets worse over time, but how quickly this happens varies. Some people lose the ability to do daily activities in the first few years. Others may do fairly well until much later in the disease.
Mild memory loss is common in people older than 60. It may not mean that you have Alzheimer's disease. But if your memory is getting worse, see your doctor. If it is Alzheimer's, treatment may help.
Alzheimer's disease is caused by changes in the brain. Some of the symptoms may be linked to a loss of chemical messengers in the brain, called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters allow nerve cells in the brain to communicate properly.
For most people, the first symptom of Alzheimer's disease is memory loss. Other symptoms include having trouble making decisions, getting lost in places you know, and having trouble learning. The symptoms get worse slowly over time. Alzheimer's disease also causes changes in thinking, behavior, and personality.
Your doctor will do a number of tests to make sure your symptoms are caused by Alzheimer's disease and not another condition. You may have to do some simple memory tests and tests that show how well you can do daily tasks. You may get blood tests and tests that look at your brain.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. But there are medicines that may slow down the symptoms for a while and make the disease easier to live with. If you're a caregiver, there are steps you can take to help the person be independent for as long as possible.
Care needs will change over time. You'll work with health professionals to create a safe and comfortable environment and make tasks of daily living easier. You can help by making sure the person eats well. You can also help manage sleep problems. Your loved one may also need help with bladder and bowel control.
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Alzheimer's disease is caused by changes in the brain. Some of the symptoms may be linked to a loss of chemical messengers in the brain. These messengers are called neurotransmitters. They allow nerve cells in the brain to communicate properly.
People with Alzheimer's disease have two things in the brain that aren't normal: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Experts don't know if these things are side effects of Alzheimer's disease or part of the cause.
At this time, there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer's disease. But there are things that may make it less likely.
Adults who are physically active may be less likely than adults who aren't active to get this disease or another type of dementia. Moderate activity is safe for most people. But it's always a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.
Older adults who stay mentally active may be at lower risk for this disease. Activities that may help include reading, playing cards and other games, and working crossword puzzles. Going out and staying as socially active as possible may also help lower the risk. Although this "use it or lose it" approach hasn't been proven, no harm can come from often putting the brain to work.
Eating a balanced diet may also help. This includes whole grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables.
Memory loss is usually the first sign of Alzheimer's disease. Often the person who has a memory problem doesn't notice it, but family and friends do.
Having some short-term memory loss in your 60s and 70s is common, but this doesn't mean it's Alzheimer's disease.
Normal memory problems aren't the same as the kind of memory problems that may be caused by Alzheimer's disease. For example, normally you might forget:
With Alzheimer's disease, you might forget:
Following are some of the symptoms of mild, moderate, and severe Alzheimer's disease. Symptoms vary as the disease progresses. Talk to your doctor if a friend or family member has any of the signs.
Usually, a person with mild Alzheimer's disease:
These symptoms often are more obvious when the person is in a new and unfamiliar place or situation.
Some people have memory loss called mild cognitive impairment. People with this condition are at risk for Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia. But not all people with mild cognitive impairment progress to dementia.
With moderate Alzheimer's disease, a person typically:
With severe Alzheimer's disease, a person usually:
Early in the disease, Alzheimer's usually doesn't affect a person's fine motor skills (such as the ability to button or unbutton clothes or use utensils) or sense of touch. So a person who has motor symptoms (such as weakness or shaking hands) or sensory symptoms (such as numbness) probably has a condition other than Alzheimer's disease. Conditions such as Parkinson's disease, for instance, may cause motor symptoms along with dementia.
Other conditions with symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer's disease may include:
Alzheimer's disease gets worse over time. But the course of the disease varies from person to person. Some people may still be able to function fairly well until later in the course of the disease. Others may lose the ability to do everyday activities very early on.
Alzheimer's disease tends to develop slowly over time. If confusion and other changes in mental abilities come on suddenly, within hours or days, the problem may be delirium. Delirium needs treatment right away.
Seek care now if:
Call your doctor to schedule an appointment if:
If memory loss isn't quickly getting worse or interfering with work, social life, or the ability to function, it may be normal age-related memory loss. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about memory loss.
Your doctor will do a number of tests to make sure your symptoms are caused by Alzheimer's disease and not another condition.
Your doctor will ask about your past health and do a physical exam. The doctor may ask you to do some simple things that test your memory and other mental skills. Your doctor may also check how well you can do daily tasks.
The exam usually includes blood tests to look for another cause of your problems. You may have tests such as CT scans and MRI scans, which look at your brain. By themselves, these tests can't show for sure whether you have Alzheimer's.
It usually is helpful to bring a family member or someone else you trust to the appointment. A family member may be able to provide the best information about how your day-to-day functioning, memory, and personality have changed.
There isn't a cure yet for Alzheimer's disease. But there are things that can be done to maintain quality of life.
The doctor, family, and the loved one can work together to make a care plan. Care plans may include any of the following:
There are no medicines that can prevent or cure Alzheimer's disease. Medicine may help some people do daily tasks better. They can reduce memory loss and thinking problems for a period of time. They are also used for behavior problems.
These medicines may help improve memory and daily functioning for a period of time in some people who have Alzheimer's disease. How well they work varies. They don't prevent the disease from getting worse.
Medicines may be used if someone with Alzheimer's is agitated or disruptive. The medicines used include antipsychotic, antianxiety, and anticonvulsant medicines.
Medicines generally are used only for behavior problems when other treatments have failed.
You'll work with a team of health professionals to create a safe and comfortable environment and to make tasks of daily living as easy as possible. Some people with early or mild Alzheimer's disease can care for themselves.
Work with the team of health professionals to:
The team can also help you learn how to manage behavior problems. For example, you can learn ways to help the person avoid confusion, manage agitation, and communicate clearly.
You have decisions to make about both medical care and legal issues. They include:
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