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Frequently Asked Questions About Alzheimer's Disease

What is Alzheimer's disease? 
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive degenerative disorder that results in impaired thinking, memory, and behavior. It is characterized by a distinctive pattern of "plaques and tangles in the brain." Plaques are patches of dying nerve fibers clustered outside of the nerve cell, and tangles are threads of nerve fiber. The disease destroys brain cells and ultimately leads to death.

Is Alzheimer's the same as dementia? 
"Dementia" is an umbrella term for disorders where the mental functions break down -- where there is confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia.

Is Alzheimer's a mental illness? 
Although Alzheimer’s affects the brain, it is not a mental illness. However, depression is a common mental illness and can cause Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Depression is a treatable and reversible condition.

How is Alzheimer's different from normal aging? 
Alzheimer's is NOT a normal part of aging. As people age they tend to experience changes in the speed of recall; the information is there, but, with age, it may take longer to call it up. The following examples show some of the differences between age related memory loss and Alzheimer’s:

 

Normal Aging: May forget what she/he had for lunch
Alzheimer's: Forgets that she/he had lunch

Normal Aging: May not always recall names of friends and relatives, but recognizes them and recalls the names later
Alzheimer's: Doesn't recognize friends and relatives

Normal Aging: May not remember today's date, but knows the year and time day
Alzheimer's: Cannot remember the day of the week, season, year, or time of day

 

Is the disease inherited? 
The genetic form of Alzheimer's disease is found in less than 5% of AD patients and usually affects people younger than 50.  This is referred to as “early onset”.  The vast majority of Alzheimer's disease cases occur after age 65.

Who can get Alzheimer's? 
Alzheimer's affects an estimated 4.5 million American adults. It strikes rich and poor alike, men and women, and people of all ethnic groups.  Alzheimer's rarely occurs before age 45. By age 70, the prevalence of the disease rises. .In the oldest age group, 85 and older, the prevalence is fifty percent. 

How can you tell if someone has Alzheimer’s?  
The disease begins with little things that don't add up: a forgotten word, the tendency to blame lapses of memory on fatigue or stress, some personality changes; or a lack of motivation. Forgetfulness becomes the hallmark. People with the disease gradually forget recent experiences; fail to recognize familiar names, people and/or places; and eventually, cannot follow written or spoken instructions. These impairments in thinking and memory become progressively worse. The individual may repeat the same story or ask the same question and not remember they already said it.

“The Seven Warning Signs of Alzheimer's Disease”, published by Eric Pfeiffer, MD, founding director of the USF Suncoast Alzheimer's and Gerontology Center, lists the following signs:

  1. Asking the same question over and over again.
  2. Repeating the same story, word for word, again and again.
  3. Forgetting how to cook, or how to make repairs, or how to play cards -- activities that were previously done with ease and regularity.
  4. Losing one's ability to pay bills or balance one's checkbook.
  5. Getting lost in familiar surroundings, or misplacing household objects.
  6. Neglecting to bathe, or wearing the same clothes over and over again, while insisting that they have taken a bath or that their clothes are still clean.
  7. Relying on somebody else, such as a spouse, to make decisions or answer questions that they previously would have handled themselves.

It should be noted that if someone has several of these symptoms, it does not mean that they definitely have the disease. They should be thoroughly examined by a medical specialist trained in evaluating memory disorders, such as a neurologist or a psychiatrist, or by a comprehensive memory disorder clinic, with an entire team of experts knowledgeable about memory problems.

What are the diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's disease?  
There is no single test that will diagnose Alzheimer's. With a complete medical history, caregiver interview and diagnostic tests, described below, the diagnosis can be made with a high degree of accuracy. Since some conditions that cause memory problems can be treated, a complete medical and neurological evaluation is strongly recommended when an individual begins to experience memory loss.

 

Medical History Including Drug/Medication Review - to establish progressive intellectual deterioration and identify personality changes, problems with memory, and difficulty with daily activities.

Physical Examination - to assess general health and look for signs of other conditions that can affect memory and thinking.

Mental Status Test - to rule out emotional and intellectual impairment as well as psychiatric impairment. This should include evaluation of orientation, attention, memory, judgment, thought processes, and mood.

Diagnostic Tests that may be performed (it depends on the symptoms and other medical conditions or risk factors) 

 

Courtesy of USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute