Alzheimer's Disease

To understand Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to acknowledge the difference between dementia and AD, two terms that are often intermingled.  Dementia is not a disease; it is a set of symptoms caused by changes in the brain.  Someone with dementia (di men sha) can experience deterioration in their personality, memory, and reasoning skills.  Although there are many illnesses and diseases that can cause dementia, Alzheimer’s (alz hi merz) disease is the most common form. 

Our brains consist of billions of nerve cells called neurons.  Electrical signals pass from one neuron to the next through synapses which allows a person to form memories, thoughts and feelings.  It is thought that Alzheimer’s disease destroys neurons and disrupts the flow of electrical signals.  The destruction and death of nerve cells cause irreversible damage by destroying brain tissue that helps a person talk, think, function and form memories.    

Alzheimers Signs & Symptoms

As Alzheimer’s disease worsens it destroys various parts of the brain.  For this reason not everyone with the disease experiences the same signs or progression of symptoms.  Examples of signs and symptoms include

  • Forgetting recently learned information
  • Changes in behavior, mood and personality
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Poor judgment
  • Difficulty finding the right words to use when speaking
  • Impulsive or aggressive behavior
  • Trouble recognizing friends and family
  • Experiencing paranoia or delusions
  • The inability to recognize self
  • Loss of communication skills
  • Loss of control over bodily functions
  • Needing assistance with activities of daily living

Alzheimers Diagnosis

An autopsy of the diseased brain is the only way to definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.  To determine whether you have probable AD it is important to first rule out depression, nutritional deficiencies, reactions to medications, stroke and other conditions that can cause dementia-like symptoms.    

To determine whether your symptoms are related to Alzheimer’s disease or another condition, your doctor will conduct a thorough medical exam.  This will include obtaining your medical history, a physical exam, and lab work.  You may also have your mental status tested, a neurological exam or a brain scan.  These procedures help determine the condition of your brain, memory, communication skills and ability to problem-solve. Visiting with your doctor about your medical concerns will allow you to receive accurate treatment for your condition. 

Alzheimers Treatment

Alzheimer’s disease is not curable or reversible.  There is no treatment or medication that can repair the damage AD inflicts on the brain.  But there are treatments that can help those suffering from the disease.  The FDA has authorized the use of Aricept, Exelon, Razadyne, Namenda and Cognex for those with Alzheimer’s.  These medications can slow the progression of the disease and relieve some symptoms. They do not work for everybody and often have many unpleasant side effects. 

Medications can also be administered for depression, anxiety, trouble sleeping and hallucinations; common conditions experience by a person with Alzheimer’s.  Caregiver education, a stable living situation and relaxing techniques can positively affect the person with Alzheimer’s.  Understanding the disease, talking about concerns and learning how to cope with the symptoms of AD can help ease physical and mental discomfort.

Alternative treatments are also available and can include special diets, herbs and supplements.  These options have not been tested for safety or efficacy and can negatively react with other medications.  Before starting any alternative treatment it is very important to visit with your physician.

Risk Factors

The greatest factor in developing Alzheimer’s disease is age.  The chance of someone developing AD doubles every five years after turning 65.  Those who are 85 and older have a 50 percent chance of developing AD.

Family history can also impact the development of Alzheimer’s disease.  Although no gene has been identified to determine the inheritance of AD, some families may have a family history of the disease. When you have a parent, brother or sister, or child who has the disease your chances of developing Alzheimer’s may be higher. 

When Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed before the age of 60 it is known as early-onset AD.  Genetics play a large part in this form of the disease because scientists have identified a gene mutation associated with early-onset AD.  Genetic testing can determine if you are a carrier but cannot verify if you will develop the disease.  However, if several generations in your family have experienced Alzheimer’s before the age of 60 you too may develop early-onset AD.

Education and socioeconomic status can also play a part in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.  It is thought that a higher degree of education, a mentally-stimulating career, and an active social life may allow the neurons in the brain to stay healthy. 

The brain is dependent on the blood system to keep it nourished and well.  Therefore the health of the heart and brain may play a part in developing AD.  Since Latinos and African-Americans have a higher risk of developing vascular disease, ethnicity can be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Although some risk factors may be controlled, no one is immune from developing this disease. 


Alzheimer’s disease cannot be prevented or delayed and further research is needed to determine the cause of AD.  As with the prevention of other serious diseases, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important. 

  • Stay physically active and eat a healthy diet
  • Control your current health conditions
  • Maintain healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure
  • Exercise your brain with mentally stimulating activities
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Stay socially active


Broyles, J. F., (2006). Coach Broyles’ playbook for Alzheimer’s caregivers: A practical tips guide. University of Arkansas.