Alzheimer's Disease Facts
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that occurs when nerve cells in the brain die.
The disease can impair memory, thinking, and behavior, causing personality and behavior changes, language deterioration, and emotional apathy.
Alzheimer’s was first identified in 1906 by German physician Alois Alzheimer. Back then it was considered a rare disorder. Today, Alzheimer’s disease is recognized as the most common cause of dementia, a disorder in which mental functions deteriorate and break down. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 4% of the 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer's have early onset disease, which affects people younger than age 65.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease? Although intense investigation has been under way for many years, the precise causes aren’t entirely known. They may include the following:
Age and family history
Abnormal protein deposits in the brain
Other risk and environmental factors
Immune system problems
There is not a single, comprehensive test for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. By ruling out other conditions through a process of elimination, doctors can diagnose probable Alzheimer’s disease with about 90% accuracy. However, the only way to confirm the diagnosis is through autopsy of the brain.
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It’s essential to determine whether the dementia is the result of a treatable illness. In addition to a complete medical history and extensive neurological motor, cognitive and sensory exams, diagnostic procedures for Alzheimer’s disease may include the following:
Mental status test
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
Electroencephalogram (EEG)—a procedure that records the brain’s continuous electrical activity using electrodes attached to the scalp
Computed tomography scan (CT scan)
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)—a test that records the electrical activity of the heart
Medications can help with some of the most troubling symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as depression, behavioral disturbance, and sleeplessness. In managing the disease, physical exercise and social activity are important, as are proper nutrition and maintaining good health. People who have Alzheimer’s benefit from a calm environment, with daily activities that help to provide structure, meaning, and accomplishment. It’s important to adapt activities and routines so that the individual can do as many things independently as possible.
Because the controllable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are unknown, it isn’t yet possible to reduce the chances of developing the disease. At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, no way of slowing down its progression, and no treatment available to reverse the deterioration. The goal of current mainstream medical therapy is to preserve diminishing brain function. But new research findings give reason for hope, and several drugs are being studied in clinical trials to determine if they can improve memory or slow the progress of the disease.
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- Alzheimer’s Association. http://www.alz.org/national/documents/report_alzfactsfigures2009.pdf
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/alzheimersdisease/alzheimersdisease.htm