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Frequently Asked Questions About Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

Below are questions that are frequently asked about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. If you suspect that your loved one has cognitive issues we encourage you to seek professional help and a diagnosis. If dementia is present, a care plan will address their needs to maximize the person’s life.

Confused senior woman

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. It begins slowly and gets worse over time. Currently, it has no cure. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older people.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a loss of thinking, remembering, and reasoning skills that interfere with a person’s daily life and activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. Dementia ranges in severity from the mild stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for care.

What is typically the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease?

Memory problems are typically one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease, though different people may have different initial symptoms. A decline in other aspects of thinking, such as finding the right words, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may also signal the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is mild cognitive impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is a condition that can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease—but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s. People with MCI can still take care of themselves and do their normal activities. Signs of MCI may include

  • losing things often
  • forgetting to go to events and appointments
  • having more trouble coming up with words than other people the same age.

How many people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease?

Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people. In early-onset Alzheimer’s, which occurs in people between the ages of 30 and 60, a genetic mutation is usually the cause. Late-onset Alzheimer’s, which usually develops after age 60, arises from a complex series of brain changes that occur over decades. The causes probably include a mix of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. These factors affect each person differently.

Increasing age is the most important known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Lifestyle factors, such as diet and physical exercise, and long-term health conditions, like high blood pressure and diabetes, might also play a role in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

What are the stages in the development of Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease has three stages: early (also called mild), middle (moderate), and late (severe).

A person in the early stage of Alzheimer’s may

  • find it hard to remember things
  • ask the same questions over and over
  • get lost in familiar places
  • lose things or put them in odd places
  • have trouble handling money and paying bills
  • take longer than normal to finish daily tasks.

As Alzheimer’s disease progresses to the middle stage, memory loss and confusion grow worse, and people may have problems recognizing family and friends. Other symptoms at this stage include

  • difficulty learning new things and coping with new situations
  • trouble carrying out tasks that involve multiple steps, like getting dressed
  • impulsive behavior
  • forgetting the names of common things
  • hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia
  • wandering away from home.

As Alzheimer’s disease becomes more severe, people lose the ability to communicate. They may sleep more, lose weight, and have trouble swallowing. Often they are incontinent—they cannot control their bladder and/or bowels. Eventually, they need total care.

What changes in the brain happen to people with Alzheimer’s disease?

Although we still don’t know how Alzheimer’s disease begins, it seems likely that damage to the brain starts 10 years or more before problems become obvious. During the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s, people are free of symptoms, but harmful changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal protein deposits form amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain. Once-healthy nerve cells lose their ability to function and communicate with each other, and eventually they die.

As nerve cells in the brain die, parts of the brain begin to shrink. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

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