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Alzheimer Disease: At a Glance

By The Manual's Editorial Staff,

In people with Alzheimer disease, mental function—memory, thinking, judgment, and learning ability—progressively declines. It is a type of dementia.

In 60 to 80% of older people with dementia, Alzheimer disease is the cause. It becomes more common with increasing age. It affects

  • About 13% of people aged 65 or older

  • About 45% of those aged 85 or older

Did You Know...

  • Age is the major risk factor for Alzheimer disease.

The number of people with Alzheimer disease is expected to greatly increase as the proportion of older people increases. Only about 5 to 15% of cases run in families.

Alzheimer disease causes changes in nerve cells (neurons) in the brain:

  • Beta-amyloid (an abnormal, insoluble protein) accumulates because cells cannot process and remove it.

  • Nerve cells in the outer layer of the brain (the cortex) deteriorate and die—called cortical atrophy.

  • Senile or neuritic plaques are clumps of dead nerve cells around a core of beta-amyloid.

  • Neurofibrillary tangles are twisted strands of insoluble proteins in the nerve cell.

For a full discussion, see Alzheimer Disease.

How Can You Recognize Alzheimer Disease?

As people age, short-term memory declines to some degree, and people learn more slowly. These normal age-related changes, unlike Alzheimer disease and other dementias, do not affect the ability to function and do daily tasks. For example,

  • People who are aging normally may misplace things or forget details, but people who have dementia may forget entire events.

  • People who have dementia have difficulty doing normal daily tasks such as driving, cooking, and handling finances.

Early symptoms may include

  • Forgetting recent events because forming new memories is difficult

  • Becoming emotionally unresponsive, depressed, or unusually fearful or anxious

  • Becoming less able to use good judgment and think abstractly

  • Using a simpler or a general word or many words rather than a specific word

  • Being more easily disoriented and confused—for example, getting lost on the way to the store

Did You Know...

  • People live, on average, about 7 years after Alzheimer disease is diagnosed.

Can Alzheimer Disease Be Treated?

There is no known cure, but certain drugs may help some people with Alzheimer disease. Some may temporarily improve cognitive function, and one drug (memantine) appears to slow the progression of Alzheimer disease.

Other Decisions to Be Made

Before people with Alzheimer disease become too incapacitated, decisions should be made about medical care, and financial and legal arrangements should be made. These arrangements are called advance directives.

Because Alzheimer disease progresses, planning for the future is essential. Long before a person with dementia requires more support and care, family members should evaluate their options for long-term care. Some long-term care facilities, including assisted living facilities and nursing homes, specialize in caring for people with dementia.

How long the person can be cared for at home depends on many factors, including the availability of family members and caregivers and financial resources.

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