What is Alzheimer’s?


According to the National Institute on Aging, “Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. It is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. While dementia is more common as people grow older, it is not a normal part of aging.”

In the past, Alzheimer’s and dementia were often considered to be the same. Now there is rising appreciation that a variety of diseases and disease processes contribute to dementia.  In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear early in their 60s. We can’t know for sure, but many experts suggest that more than 5.5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles).

These plaques and tangles in the brain are still considered some of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. Another feature is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Neurons transmit messages between different parts of the brain, and from the brain to muscles and organs in the body.

Signs and Symptoms

The first symptoms of Alzheimer’s vary from person to person.

  • For many, decline in non-memory aspects of cognition, such as word-finding, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may signal the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. (NIA)
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems, such as balancing a checkbook

  • Loosing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time– may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately.

  • Trouble joining or following a conversation. They may repeat a lot or stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue. Struggling with vocabulary is also another sign.

  • Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them.

  • Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted.

What’s Next?

If you notice any of these signs in yourself or somebody you know, please contact your doctor to ask about a formal evaluation. If your concern persists, it is best to see a physician that specializes in Behavioral Neurology, specifically Alzheimer’s and Alzheimer’s-Related Dementias. More information can be found on the Alzheimer’s Association website.

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