Understanding Alzheimer Disease

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Alzheimer disease is an illness of the brain. It causes large numbers of nerve cells in the brain to die. This affects your ability to remember things and think clearly. Doctors don’t know what causes the disease. They do know that it usually begins after age 60 and nearly half of people age 85 and older may have Alzheimer disease. However, it is not a normal part of aging.

What Happens When You Have Alzheimer Disease?

The disease often starts slowly. In fact, some people don’t know they have Alzheimer disease. They blame their forgetfulness on old age. However, over time, their memory problems get much worse. People with Alzheimer disease lose the ability to drive a car, cook a meal or even read a newspaper. They may get lost easily and find even simple things confusing. Some people become worried, angry or violent. At some point, people with Alzheimer disease may need someone to take care of all their needs (feeding, bathing, etc.) at home or in a nursing home.

Signs of Alzheimer Disease

It’s really important to know the signs of Alzheimer disease. If you know the signs, you can get help right away. Listed below are the early signs of Alzheimer and the later signs that show up after you have had the disease for a while.

Early Signs

  • Trouble remembering recent events
  • Problems remembering names of people and places
  • Trouble solving simple math problems

Later Signs

  • Forget how to brush your teeth or comb your hair
  • Cannot remember the names of common things such as desk, house, apple
  • Wander away from home

See Your Doctor Early

If you or someone in your family thinks your forgetfulness is getting in the way of your normal routine, it’s time to see your doctor. Seeing the doctor early means you can find out what’s causing you to be forgetful. If you have Alzheimer disease, finding the disease early gives you and your family more time to talk about and plan for your treatment and care.

Your doctor may do the following things to help diagnose Alzheimer disease:

  • Check on your general health
  • Ask questions about your family’s health
  • Talk to someone in your family about your memory problems
  • Ask how well you can do everyday things like driving, writing a check, and talking with friends and family
  • Test your memory, problem solving, counting and language skills
  • Do medical tests — such as checking your blood and urine
  • Do brain scans, also called CAT scans, that show pictures of your brain

Other Illnesses That Cause Alzheimer-Like Signs

You need to know that there are some illnesses and problems that may look like Alzheimer disease, but are caused by other problems.

These include:

  • Bad reaction to certain medicines
  • Depression
  • Not eating enough healthy foods, or too few vitamins and minerals in your body
  • Brain tumors
  • Blood vessel disease
  • Thyroid problems

Some of these illnesses can be treated. Once treated, your confusion and memory loss should go away.

Treatment for Alzheimer Disease

There are medicines that can treat the symptoms of Alzheimer disease. However, there is no cure. Some medicines keep your memory loss and other symptoms from getting worse for a time. These medicines work best if Alzheimer disease is found early. Other medicines work to help you sleep better or feel less worried and depressed. These medicines don’t directly treat the disease. They do help you feel more comfortable.

What About Research on Alzheimer Disease?

Researchers are working very hard to find new and better treatments for this disease. They are doing research with people who have different kinds of memory problems to learn the best way to treat Alzheimer disease. They also are looking at how to prevent, slow and reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer disease.

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials are research studies that help doctors learn which treatments work best. Healthy people and people with Alzheimer disease may be able to take part in clinical trials.

To find out more about these studies, contact the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center at 1-800-438-4380, or visit the ADEAR Center Web site at https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/alzheimers

Is There Help for Caregivers?

Yes. If you are caring for someone with Alzheimer disease, you may feel overwhelmed. It can take all your time and energy. There is help for you. Learn about support groups, adult day-care programs, home healthcare services and other helpful resources. You need to take care of yourself in order to take care of someone with Alzheimer disease. The Alzheimer’s Association has chapters across the country that can help.

Where Can I Get More Information?

Contact the following organizations to learn about support groups, services, publications on Alzheimer disease, research centers and studies:

Alzheimer’s Association
225 N. Michigan Avenue,
Suite 1700
Chicago, IL 60601

Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
P.O. Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250

Eldercare Locator

Publication Date: 2008

Source: National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health

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