What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living. It is the most common form of dementia in older people, with symptoms typically first appearing in people age 65 and older.
The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles).
Plaques and tangles in the brain are two of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. The third is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.
Although treatment can help manage symptoms in some people, currently there is no cure for this devastating disease.
Alzheimer’s disease and older adults
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that as many as 5 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the number of people with it will increase significantly if current population trends continue. That’s because the risk of Alzheimer’s increases with age, and the U.S. population is aging.
Alzheimer’s is a slow disease that progresses in three stages—an early preclinical stage with no symptoms, a middle stage of mild cognitive impairment, and a final stage of Alzheimer’s dementia. 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.
Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease
Caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease at home is a difficult task and can become overwhelming at times. Each day brings new challenges, as the caregiver copes with changing levels of ability and new patterns of behavior. Research has shown that caregivers themselves often are at risk for depression and illness if they don’t receive adequate support.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers an easy-to-use guide, Caring for a Person with Alzheimer’s Disease, for people who care for family members or others with Alzheimer’s disease at home. The guide can help caregivers learn about and cope with the many challenges of Alzheimer’s disease.
You can read or download this book online at:
You can also order a free copy from the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center, a service of the National Institute on Aging by calling: 1-800-438-4380.
Article courtesy of NIH Medline Plus magazine.