Understanding Alzheimer's disease

Posted by Winnie Pao, M.D.
August 06, 2013

As we age, it’s normal to experience occasional forgetfulness and even some confusion. But when you begin to have consistent issues with thinking, reasoning and remembering, it could be a sign of a more serious condition known as dementia. The good news is that minor lapses in memory are not typically indicative of dementia.

The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease – a condition where brain cells decline in function.

What are the signs? Alzheimer’s disease usually begins as mild cognitive impairment, which slowly progresses into serious functional difficulties. Some of the warning signs for Alzheimer’s include:

1. Memory loss. This is one of the most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s often:

  • Forget recently learned information
  • Miss appointments or events and don’t recall them later
  • Misplace items and set them in strange locations
  • Eventually forget the names of familiar people and objects
  • Experience confusion about time and place

2. Problems with reasoning and thinking. Individuals with Alzheimer’s often find it increasingly difficult to work with numbers, balance their finances or think abstractly. This may lead to frequently missed bill payments.

3. Changes in behavior. Due to changes in the brain over the course of the disease, Alzheimer’s can cause shifts in behavior and personality including:

  • Confusion
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Aggression and irritability
  • Fear and paranoia

4. Disorientation. People with Alzheimer’s may forget the day, month or year. They may also begin to misinterpret their surroundings and become confused as to where they are – and why.

5. Trouble communicating. Those suffering from Alzheimer’s may experience difficulty recalling the correct name of an object. For example, they might call a shovel a “scooping thing.”

6. Difficulty performing routine activities. As Alzheimer’s progresses, individuals may find it challenging to complete simple, habitual activities, such as following a well-known recipe.

If you notice any of the previously listed symptoms in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your health care provider.

Can Alzheimer’s be prevented? There is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. However, research suggests that certain lifestyles are associated with a lower risk of dementia.

  • Regular exercise. Staying active may improve cognitive function while contributing to overall health.
  • Healthy eating. A diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lean protein – with minimal saturated fat and sugar – helps support brain health.
  • Brain stimulation. Remaining socially and intellectually involved can positively affect mental function and quality of life. Engage your brain in demanding activities such as reading or completing puzzles enhance cognitive well-being.

What is the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease? There are several medications used to temporarily slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, but there is not yet a proven treatment for long-term symptom stabilization.

What are the major risk factors? There is still much to be learned about Alzheimer’s disease. Some risk factors linked to Alzheimer’s include:

  • Age. This is by far the greatest risk factor. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the odds of developing Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after age 65.
  • Genetics. Alzheimer’s often runs in families. Scientists have discovered three rare gene mutations that elevate risk for the disease.
  • Head trauma. There is a potential link between serious or repetitive head injury and future risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
  • Vascular risk factors. There is a strong association of Alzheimer's disease with inadequately managed vascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, smoking and obstructive sleep apnea.

By maintaining an open dialogue with your health care provider about any concerns or symptoms, you will have the knowledge and the tools to best address the challenges presented by this disease.

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Comments (1)

My brother lives in Indiana and has recently been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment which will probably result in Alzheimer's. He and his wife do not feel particularly confident with the diagnosis and would like to get a 2nd opinion. He would like to be examined at Mayo. Can you tell us who to contact to make arrangements? Thank you.

Mark Finley - 04/19/2016

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