Alzheimer's Disease 101

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear after age 60. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people.

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. There are several stages of dementia which range in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others.

The basic facts of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems, and unpredictable behavior. After she died, he examined her brain and found many abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles).

  • Plaques and tangles in the brain are two of the main features of Alzheimer’s disease. The third is the loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain.

  • Alzheimer's is the most well-known type of dementia accounting for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.

  • One in three people over 65 will have Alzheimer's at the time of their death.

  • It is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.

  • Up to 5 percent of individuals with the disease have early onset Alzheimer's (also known as youthful onset.) This occurs when Alzheimer's strikes in a person’s 40s or 50s.

  • Medical science still does not know exactly how the Alzheimer’s disease process begins. It seems likely that damage to the brain starts a decade or more before problems become evident.

  • Before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, people are free of symptoms, but toxic changes are taking place in the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain, and once-healthy neurons begin to work less efficiently. Over time, neurons lose the ability to function and communicate with each other. They eventually die.

  • The damage spreads to a nearby structure in the brain called the hippocampus, which controls your memories. As more neurons die, affected brain regions begin to shrink.

  • By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

  • Those with Alzheimer's live on average eight years after their symptoms are obvious to others.

  • Some Alzheimer's patients have lived up to 20 years after being diagnosed

  • Today, there are massive research efforts underway to treat the disease, postpone its onset, and keep it from progressing.

  • While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, there are treatment options. The current treatment options slow the progression of the disease dramatically. Knowing the symptoms and early diagnosis are the key to slowing progression.