The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease affects thinking, impacting memory and behavior. In this article, we look at Alzheimer’s and its characteristic signs and symptoms.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
In Americans aged 65 and over, Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death, as well as a leading cause of poor health and disability.
Through improvements in medicine and technology, healthcare providers have achieved significant gains in recent decades in the treatment of many debilitating and life-threatening conditions. Yet Alzheimer’s disease remains on the increase. Between 2000 and 2018, deaths from Alzheimer’s more than doubled, increasing by 146%. By comparison, during that timeframe, deaths from heart disease, the leading cause of death, fell by 7.8%.
About 60% of 70-year-old Alzheimer’s patients are predicted to die before reaching the age of 80, compared with only 30% of people without the disease. People over 65 live an average of 4 to 8 years after receiving an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, yet some may live as long as 20 years. Progression can be slow and unpredictable.
This fact underscores that Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition—it causes symptoms of dementia that worsen over time. In its early stages, Alzheimer’s causes mild memory loss. In its later stages, the disease can be debilitating, impairing the patient’s ability to respond to their environment or to carry on conversations.
Who discovered Alzheimer’s?
The condition was described for the first time in the early 20th century by Alois Alzheimer, a German physician who linked microscopic brain changes to profound memory loss and worsening psychological changes in one of his patients. Following the patient’s death, Dr. Alzheimer performed an autopsy, observing dramatic shrinkage of the brain, combined with abnormal deposits. First describing what he termed “a peculiar disease” in 1906, Dr. Alois Alzheimer is regarded as a pioneer by scientists today for his groundbreaking work, his close clinical relationship with his patient, and his use of new scientific tools to understand how physiological brain changes produced symptoms.
What are the main symptoms?
The Alzheimer’s Association identifies 10 key symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease:
- Memory loss. We all suffer occasional memory lapses, but in Alzheimer’s disease, forgetfulness disrupts daily life. Patients may struggle to retain recently learned information or stumble over important events or dates, repeating the same questions and increasingly relying on family members or memory aids.
- Problem solving and planning difficulties. People affected by dementia may experience a diminished ability to formulate and follow plans. Their ability to work with numbers may be impacted, to the extent where they struggle to follow a familiar recipe or keep track of monthly bills.
- Difficulties in completing routine tasks. People with Alzheimer’s may experience lapses in concentration that impact their ability to complete daily tasks. They may struggle to compile a grocery list or drive to familiar places.
- Confusion with places and times. People living with dementia often lose track of the passage of time or struggle to remember dates. They may become disorientated, forgetting where they are or struggling to remember how they got there. Affected individuals often struggle to understand something when it does not happen immediately.
- Impaired spatial awareness. For some people with Alzheimer’s, the disease can cause visual problems, leading to balance issues or reading difficulties. They may struggle to judge color or contrast. This can make it difficult to assess distances and therefore impact their ability to drive safely.
- Speech and writing difficulties. People with Alzheimer’s often struggle with conversations. They may suddenly stop, repeat themselves, mix up names, or find themselves unable to find the right words.
- Losing things. We all occasionally misplace things, but Alzheimer’s is more than that. The disease affects a person’s ability to retrace their steps to find an item, or causes individuals to put items in unusual places. Someone affected by the disease may become suspicious of others and accuse them of stealing lost belongings, particularly in the later stages of the condition.
- Poor judgement. Alzheimer’s can affect decision-making, impairing a person’s ability to work with money or keep themselves clean.
- Withdrawal from social activities. Since Alzheimer’s affects a person’s ability to hold a conversation, this can cause them to retreat from friends and family.
- Changes in personality and mood. People with the condition may become easily upset, particularly when forced outside of their comfort zone. They may become anxious, confused, suspicious, fearful, or depressed.
How far are we from finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?
There is currently no single effective treatment or identified cure for the condition. Nevertheless, some drug and non-drug treatment options can alleviate individual symptoms. For example, the FDA has approved cholinesterase inhibitors (including donepezil, galantamine, and rivastigmine) and memantine to treat memory loss and confusion associated with Alzheimer’s. These drugs cannot stop or repair the damage to brain cells that Alzheimer’s causes, but they can slow down the progression of symptoms for a limited time.
The Alzheimer’s Association’s mission is to eradicate Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by increasing early detection, reducing risks associated with the disease, and accelerating global research. Until we find a cure, the Alzheimer’s Association is committed to assisting people affected by Alzheimer’s and their families, providing vital care and support.