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Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a brain illness that can happen in older adults. It is the most common cause of dementia. It is a progressive disease. This means it gets worse over time.

What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s causes a series of changes to nerves of the brain. Some nerves form into clumps and tangles, and lose some of their connections to other nerves.

Doctors don’t fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease. But they think these may be some of the causes:

  • Age and family history

  • Certain genes

  • Abnormal protein deposits in the brain

  • Environmental factors

  • Problems with a person’s immune system

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

The disease causes changes in behavior and thinking known as dementia. The symptoms include:

  • Memory loss

  • Confusion

  • Restlessness

  • Personality and behavior changes

  • Problems with judgment

  • Problems communicating with others

  • Inability to follow directions

  • Lack of emotion

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

No single test is able to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, health care providers use a series of tests to rule out other health conditions. The tests may include:

  • Mental status test. This is a simple test of memory and thinking skills.

  • Blood tests. These are done by putting a needle in the arm to draw some blood.

  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A hollow needle is put into the lower back to take some spinal fluid.

  • Urine tests. Urine can be tested for cells, chemicals, and bacteria.

  • Chest X-ray. X-rays use a small amount of radiation to make images of the body.

  • Electroencephalogram (EEG). This test uses electrodes on the scalp to record the brain’s activity.

  • CT scan. This test uses a series of X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body.

  • MRI. This test uses large magnets and a computer to make images of the body.

 

Treating Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease has no cure. Instead, health care providers can help lessen some symptoms. This can make a person with Alzheimer’s more comfortable. Treatment can also make it easier for their caregivers to take care of them. These medications may only work for a short period of time. They don’t stop the disease.

Some medications may help slow the decline of a person’s memory, thinking, and language skills. They may help with problems of behavior, such as aggression. They can lessen hallucinations and delusions. These medications can work for some but not all people. And they may help for only a limited time. Medications include:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors

  • Donepezil

  • Galantamine

  • Rivastigmine

  • Memantine

In some cases, behavior problems can be caused by medication side effects. Talk with the person’s health care provider about all medications he or she is taking.

Keeping Healthy

For a person with Alzheimer’s, it’s important to stay healthy. Good nutrition and physical and social activity are vital. A calm and well-structured environment will help. Make sure to keep up with health care appointments and managing other health conditions, such as diabetes.

Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s

A person with Alzheimer’s will need increased caregiving over time. Talk with your health care provider about caregiving resources.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Sohrabi, Farrokh, MD
Last Review Date: 6/18/2012
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