Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
 

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's Disease

What is Alzheimer's disease?

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that occurs when nerve cells in the brain die. The disease often results in the following behaviors:

With Alzheimer's disease, motor function is often preserved.

When Alzheimer's was first identified by German doctor Alois Alzheimer in 1906, 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, this number includes 5.1 million people over the age of 65, as well as 200,000 to 500,000 people younger than 65 who have early-onset Alzheimer's and other types of dementias.

Illustration showing how alzheimer affects the brain
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How is Alzheimer's different from other forms of dementia?

Alzheimer's disease is distinguished from other forms of dementia by characteristic changes in the brain that are visible only upon microscopic examination during autopsy. Brains affected by Alzheimer's disease often show presence of the following:

Another characteristic of Alzheimer's disease is the reduced production of certain brain chemicals necessary for communication between nerve cells, especially acetylcholine, as well as norepinephrine, serotonin, and somatostatin.

What causes Alzheimer's disease?

Although intense investigation has been underway for many years, the causes of Alzheimer's disease are not entirely known. The National Institute on Aging says that suspected causes often include the following:

What are the warning signs or symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?

According to the Alzheimer's Association, the following are the most common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is Alzheimer's diagnosed?

There is not a single, comprehensive test for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease. By ruling out other conditions through a process of elimination, doctors, or other specialists, can obtain a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer's disease with approximately 90 percent accuracy. However, the only way to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is through autopsy.

Examination and evaluation are essential in determining whether the dementia is the result of a treatable illness. In addition to a complete medical history and extensive neurological motor and sensory exam, diagnostic procedures for Alzheimer's disease may include the following:

Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?

Because the cause of the disease is unknown, there are no prevention protocols to follow at this time. And, because the controllable risk factors for Alzheimer's disease are unknown, it is not yet possible to reduce the chances of developing the disease.

What is the treatment for Alzheimer's?

Specific treatment for Alzheimer's disease will be determined by your doctor based on:

At this time, there is no cure for Alzheimer's, no way of slowing down the progression of this disease, and no treatment available to reverse the deterioration of Alzheimer's disease. New research findings give reason for hope, and several drugs are being studied in clinical trials to determine if they can slow the progress of the disease or improve memory for a period of time.

There are some medications available to assist in managing some of the most troubling symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, including the following:

In managing the disease, physical exercise and social activity are important, as are proper nutrition, health maintenance, and a calm and well-structured environment.

What are Alzheimer's rehabilitation programs?

The rehabilitation program for persons with Alzheimer's differs depending on the symptoms, expression, and progression of the disease, and the fact that making a diagnosis of Alzheimer's is so difficult. These variables determine the amount and type of assistance needed for the Alzheimer's individual and family.

With Alzheimer's rehabilitation, it is important to remember that, although any skills lost will not be regained, the caregiving team must keep in mind the following considerations:

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