What Is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s Is a Brain Disorder and Not Normal Aging
LS Fisher, Alzheimer’s Journey

Alzheimer’s is more than occasional memory lapses; it is a brain disorder and not a normal part of aging. Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a psychiatrist and neuropathologist, identified the characteristic plaques and tangles more than 100 years ago. Once considered a rare disease, more than five million Americans now have Alzheimer’s, and it is the sixth leading cause of death. In the top 10 causes of death, Alzheimer’s is the only disease without effective prevention or cure.

Few advances were made in the treatment of Alzheimer’s for 87 years until the first U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drug was marketed under the brand name Cognex. Since then, the FDA has approved other drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s that delay symptoms of the disease for six months to a year. Until researchers develop drugs that slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s, current drug therapies and alternative treatments can improve quality of life for those living with Alzheimer’s.

Short-term memory loss is the most common warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to forgetfulness, Alzheimer’s causes personality and mood changes, poor judgment, disorientation, language difficulties and other symptoms. These symptoms will worsen as the disease progresses and disrupt your daily life.

Risk Factors
Researchers have not identified a cause for Alzheimer’s disease other than the rare familial form. Aging is the No. 1 risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, and one out of every eight individuals 65 and older will develop the disease. After 85, the chances of developing Alzheimer’s increases to nearly one out of every two people.

The aging baby boomer population has created urgency to find an effective Alzheimer’s treatment. Beginning January 1, 2011, about 10,000 baby boomers a day will turn 65, the age when the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease begins to increase. Ten million baby boomers are expected to develop the disease. Without a cure, one person in the United States will develop Alzheimer’s every 33 seconds by 2050.

Other risk factors:

  • Diabetes mellitus
  • ApoE gene variation
  • Smoking
  • Depression
  • Family history
  • Head injury

Gender is not considered a risk factor, but two out of three people with Alzheimer’s are women. More women have Alzheimer’s because more women than men reach the age of 85.

How to Decrease Alzheimer’s Risk

Research has focused on preventing or reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. At the April 2010 NIH State of the Science Conference, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported some studies indicate the risk of Alzheimer’s can be reduced with certain lifestyle choices.

A healthy lifestyle may reduce your risk of diabetes or other diseases that are considered risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Consult with your physician to see which lifestyle changes may help you.
Factors that may decrease risk:

  • Be socially active.
  • Exercise your brain.
  • Participate in physical activities.
  • Eat healthy foods: high vegetable and folic acid, low fat.
  • Limit alcohol consumption.

The NIH finds inconclusive evidence that popular preventatives ginko-biloba and vitamins B12, C or E reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The NIH considers these studies too limited in size to be conclusive. Additional studies are necessary to determine whether herbs and vitamins reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Dementia or Alzheimer’s?
If your doctor says you have dementia, does that mean you do not have Alzheimer’s?

The distinction between dementia and Alzheimer’s is confusing. Dementia is a set of symptoms, not a specific disease. Dementia is characterized by memory loss and problems with one or more of the following: learning, orientation, language, comprehension, or judgment.

Dementia may be caused by treatable conditions or an irreversible brain disorder. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for about 60 to 80% of the cases.

Common Types of Dementia:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Vascular dementia
  • Mixed dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus

Brain Changes

Your brain is a marvelous information center made up of 100 billion nerve cells (neurons). Alzheimer’s disease interferes with the communication between neurons which adversely affects the brains ability to process thoughts and access memories. The hallmarks of Alzheimer’s are beta-amyloid plaques in the spaces between brain cells and tangles of a protein called tau that form inside brain cells. As the disease progresses, the brain shrinks and becomes more damaged.

Most discoveries about Alzheimer’s have been made in the last 20 years. The National Institute of Aging (NIA) began studying Alzheimer’s disease in 1978 and since then it has become an NIA priority. The National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) was a significant milestone toward making Alzheimer’s a national priority. NAPA was signed by President Obama in 2011 after unanimously passing both the Senate and House of Representatives. NAPA provides a national plan to coordinate Alzheimer’s disease efforts.

Studies are underway that will help scientists learn more about Alzheimer’s disease. As knowledge about Alzheimer’s increases, it is more likely that effective treatment or a cure will be found.


Alzheimer’s Association. Generation Alzheimer’s: the defining disease of the baby boomers. Accessed July 9, 2011. http://www.alz.org/boomers/

Alzheimer’s Association. 2011 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. Accessed July 10, 2011.http://www.alz.org/downloads/Facts_Figures_2011.pdf

National Institute of Health. Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline. Accessed July 19, 2011. http://consensus.nih.gov/2010/docs/alz/ALZ_Final_Statement.pdf

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