Alzheimer's Q&A

Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Assoc. Inc.
70 E. Lake Street, Suite 600
Chicago, Illinois 60601

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

The most common form of dementing illness, Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is
a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain, causing
impaired memory, thinking and behavior. The person with AD may experience
confusion, personality and behavior changes, impaired judgment, and
difficulty finding words, finishing thoughts or following directions. It
eventually leaves its victims incapable of caring for themselves.

What happens to the brain in Alzheimer's Disease?

The nerve cells in the part of the brain that controls memory, thinking,
are damaged, interrupting the passage of messages between cells. The cells
develop distinctive changes that are called neuritic plaques (clusters of
degenerating nerve cell ends) and neurofibrillary tangles (masses of
twisted filaments which accumulate in previously health nerve cells).
The cortex (thinking center) of the brain shrinks (atrophies), The spaces
in the center of the brain become enlarged, also reducing surface area
in the brain.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's Disease is a dementing illness which leads to loss of
intellectual capacity. Symptoms usually occur in older adults (although
people in their 40s and 5Os may also be affected) and include loss of
language skills -- such as trouble finding words, problems with abstract
thinking, poor or decreased judgment, disorientation in place and time,
changes in mood or behavior and changes in personality. The overall result
is a noticeable decline in personal activities or work performance.

Who is affected by Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's Disease knows no social or economic boundaries and affects men
and women almost equally. The disease strikes older persons more
frequently, affecting approximately 10% of Americans over age 65 and 47% of
those over age 85.

What causes Alzheimer's Disease?

The cause of Alzheimer's Disease is not known. Researchers are
investigating suspected causes such as neurological damage, chemical
deficiencies, viruses, genetic abnormalities, environmental toxins and
malfunctions in the body's disease defense systems.

Is Alzheimer's Disease hereditary?

There is a slightly increased risk that children, brothers, and sisters
of patients with Alzheimer's Disease will get it, but most cases are the
only ones in a family. Some patients who develop the disease in middle age
(called early onset) have a "familial" type -- more than one case in the
family. It is important to note that AD can only be definitively
diagnosed after death through autopsy of brain tissue. Thirty
percent of autopsies turn up a different diagnosis. Families are
encouraged to ask for an autopsy as a contribution to learning more
about the genetics of AD.

Are there treatments available for Alzheimer's Disease?

Presently, there is no definite cure or treatment for Alzheimer's
Disease. Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous individuals who
market so-called "cures." These treatments are often expensive and they
don't cure AD. However, since senility is such a scary problem and
because families are desperate to find help for loved ones, these bogus
treatments continue to sell. Most of them have no scientific proof of

How is Alzheimer's Disease diagnosed?

There is no single clinical test for Alzheimer's Disease. It is diagnosed
by ruling out all other curable or incurable causes of memory loss. A
positive diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease can only be made by
microscopically studying a small piece of brain tissue after death. The
cerebral cortex of an Alzheimer brain will have characteristic
abnormalities -- cells marred by plaques and tangles. However, a
working diagnosis can be made through various testing procedures that
include a thorough physical as well as neurological and
psychological examinations.

How long do people with Alzheimer's Disease live?

People diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease may live from two to 20 years
after the onset of memory loss symptoms. It shortens one's expected life
span, but given appropriate care and medical attention, patients often
survive for many years at home or in a nursing home. Death can't usually be
predicted until the very terminal stages. It is common for patients in
terminal-stage Alzheimer's to lose weight, and to have difficulty
swallowing, controlling bladder and bowels, walking and speaking. They
may curl into a fetal position. Alzheimer victims often succumb to a
series of repeated infections such as bladder infections or pneumonia.

What is the scope of Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's afflicts approximately 4 million Americans and it's estimated
that one in three of us will face this disease in an older relative.
More than 100,000 die annually, making Alzheimer's Disease the fourth
leading cause of death among adults. Half of all current nursing home
patients are affected, making AD a costly public health and long term
care problem. An estimated $80 billion is spent annually on