What is Alzheimer's Disease?
“Alzheimer’s disease is increasing at an alarming rate in the United States. An estimated 5 million people
in the United States are now living with Alzheimer's, and someone is diagnosed with the disease every
Most people with Alzheimer's are age 65 or older, but at least 200,000 people under the age of 65 are
also living with an early-onset form of the disease. By the year 2030, the number of individuals with
Alzheimer's could approach 8 million; if scientists can't find a way to cure or prevent Alzheimer's, this
number could range between 11 million and 16 million by the year 2050.
Alzheimer's versus Dementia
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that results in dementia. The
terms Alzheimer's and dementia are often used interchangeably, but there's a distinct difference
Dementia is a broader term than Alzheimer's and refers to any brain syndrome resulting in problems
with memory, orientation, judgment, executive functioning, and communication.
Other Causes of Dementia
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia -- according to the Alzheimer's Association,
60% to 70% of dementia cases are due to Alzheimer's. However, many other diseases can cause
dementia, such as stroke, Parkinson's disease, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Some infectious
diseases can also result in dementia, such as HIV or the extremely rare Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
When individuals are diagnosed with mixed dementia, more than one disease process is causing the
dementia. For example, a person might have dementia due to both Alzheimer's and a stroke.
Reversible Conditions that Resemble Alzheimer's
Sometimes symptoms that look like Alzheimer's are actually due to a reversible medical condition, such
as depression or delirium. These conditions aren't types of dementia -- they're reversible problems that
mimic Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's
People with Alzheimer's exhibit different symptoms as the disease progresses, but most symptoms are
either cognitive or behavioral.
Early Signs of Alzheimer's
People with Alzheimer's disease will show early signs of memory problems, especially difficulty
remembering recently learned information. While it's normal to occasionally forget phone numbers or
appointments, those with Alzheimer's will gradually forget more and more and become less able to recall
2. Language/Communication Difficulties
Mild difficulty communicating to others or understanding what others are saying is an early indicator of
possible Alzheimer's disease. While it's normal to periodically have trouble coming up with the right word
to express your thoughts, someone with Alzheimer's will have much more trouble communicating and
understanding what is being spoken about.
3. Lapses in Judgment
Those showing early signs of Alzheimer's may start making unwise personal, social, or financial decisions.
For example, the person might wear a heavy coat during the summer or make sexual advances toward a
waiter or waitress. While it's normal to occasionally make questionable choices, someone with
Alzheimer's may display more serioius lapses in judgment that are uncharacteristic for them.
4. Problems Completing Familiar Tasks
Individuals with Alzheimer's will start having problems planning and executing chores like fixing meals or
paying bills. While it's normal to sometimes become sidetracked and forget where one was in the middle
of an activity, those with Alzheimer's often won't be able to regain their bearings or follow through with
People with Alzheimer's often become disoriented with their time and place. For instance, they may be
confused about the current time, day, date, month, season, and/or year. They may also be confused
about where they are in regard to address, city, state, or country. While it's normal to temporarily forget
where one is headed or what day of the week it is, those with Alzheimer's might become lost on the way
to the grocery store and be unable to make it back home.
6. Decreased Ability to Think Abstractly
A person with Alzheimer's will begin having trouble completing complex intellectual tasks, such as
estimating the cost of a couple of items at the store or playing a board game. While it's normal to
periodically have trouble with things like balancing the checkbook, a person with Alzheimer's might have
consistent problems balancing a checkbook and in the later stages, he may no longer understand the
meaning or purpose of the numbers in the checkbook.
7. Misplacing Objects
A common early indicator of Alzheimer's is losing possessions and not being able to find them again,
usually because the object was put in an odd place. For instance, a person with Alzheimer's might lose a
hair dryer because he put it in the washing machine and doesn't remember doing so. While it's normal to
occasionally misplace a set of keys or a wallet, only to find them later in a logical place, a person with
Alzheimer's often won't be able to find the item again.
8. Changes in Mood and/or Behavior
Someone with Alzheimer's may become extremely moody, switching between emotions such as anger
and elation within a matter of seconds. While it's normal to occasionally feel down in the dumps or
giddy, a person with Alzheimer's may display these emotions for no apparent reason and shift between
9. Shifts in Personality
In addition to becoming moody, individuals with Alzheimer's will sometimes show changes in personality.
For instance, someone who had always been very independent and confident might become overly
dependent and suspicious. While it's normal to occasionally not feel like ourselves, this feeling is usually
temporary and doesn't change our general behavior or the way we relate to others.
10. Apathy/Loss of Initiative
A common early indicator of Alzheimer's is increased passivity. In other words, the person might watch
television for several hours a day, be reluctant to participate in activities he used to enjoy, or sleep most
of the day. While it's normal to feel tired now and then, someone with Alzheimer's might be apathetic to
a degree that negatively affects day-to-day functioning.
Diagnosis of Alzheimer's
No single test can prove that a person has Alzheimer's disease, although imaging technology is rapidly
becoming more precise. Still, according to the Alzheimer's Association, experts estimate that a
comprehensive evaluation by a skilled physician can pinpoint the cause of Alzheimer's-like symptoms
with over 90% accuracy.
Treatment of Alzheimer's
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, but several drug and non-drug treatments are available.
Cognitive symptoms are treated with one or more of the four FDA-approved prescription medications
for Alzheimer's disease. Behavioral symptoms are sometimes treated with medications, but non-drug
approaches such as behavior management are often just as successful.
Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer's Association. 2007.
Basics of Alzheimer’s disease: What it is and what you can do. Alzheimer's Association. 2005.
Journey to discovery: 2005-2006 progress report on Alzheimer’s disease. National Institutes of Health.